Back to English and those apostrophes!

I’m back! I took an eight-month break from giving advice about grammar in this blog to share my experiences living and working in Shanghai in another blog. Unfortunately, WordPress is one of the sites that is blocked in China, so that spin-off is located at instead. You can read it here:

My Chinese students shared some of the same challenges that native English-speakers do — and more. So rest assured, even though I wasn’t writing about grammar, my skills were put to good use draining the red ink on their papers! Some of the conventions that we are so accustomed to with English don’t exist in Mandarin, so punctuation, capitalization and verb tenses are especially challenging for them. Word order is very different, too. But you can read all about that on Eagleeyeinshanghai.

So, let’s pick up where we left off — those ubiquitous apostrophes. In the last blog post, I provided a simple method of determining whether an apostrophe is needed: Always stop and say the words out loud that are missing and look for possession. But those guidelines don’t cover the weird ones, such as whose/who’s, it’s/its. We’ll attack those here, and next time, we’ll run down plural possessives.

Whose/who’s and it’s/its

These two word pairs are exceptions to the usual usage, because the words without apostrophes are the ones that indicate possession.  Who’s is a contraction. It can take the place of the two words who is or who has. It does not indicate possession. Whenever you see this word used, stop and say  who is or who has. If it makes sense, then it is correct. If not, this is not the correct usage, and it needs to be changed. Whose does indicate possession, even though it does not have an apostrophe. That’s what makes it an odd duck. In the case of possession, we use the word whose instead. It’s the same situation with it’s/its. It’s takes the place of the two words it is, but it does not indicate possession. Its does indicate possession.

EXAMPLE: Who’s coming for dinner?

1. You see an apostrophe, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: For the contraction who’s, the two words replaced are who is or who has.

2. Who is coming for dinner? That makes sense, so no change is needed, because the apostrophe is taking the place of the two complete words (contraction).

CORRECT: Who’s coming for dinner?

EXAMPLE: Who’s shoe is this?

1. You see the word who’s, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: For the contraction who’s, the two words replaced are who is or who has.

2. Who is shoe is this? Who has shoe is this? Neither of these sentences makes sense, so a change is needed.

3. “Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “What about possession? You said an apostrophe also indicates that something is owned, and isn’t this sentence questioning ownership of the shoe?” It is, but remember that who’s is an exception. It does not indicate possession; it is only a contraction. The word whose is for possession.

CORRECT: Whose shoe is this?


EXAMPLE: John is the one who’s been eating my salad.

1. You see the word who’s, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: For the contraction who’s, the two words replaced are who is or who has.

2. John is the one who is been eating my salad. John is the one who has been eating my salad. The first sentence does not make sense, but the second one does. No change is needed if it makes sense with either who is OR who has.

CORRECT: John is the one who’s been eating my salad.

EXAMPLE: The cat has lost its toy.

  1. You see the word its without an apostrophe. You can still check to determine whether it should have an apostrophe by trying it out with the complete words replaced in the contraction.
  2. The cat has lost it is toy. This does not make sense, so we know that it does not need an apostrophe. Its is correct in indicating possession here.

CORRECT: The cat has lost its toy.

EXAMPLE: Whose child is the one who’s been taking it’s toy?

I’m going to let you work this one out on your own! Is this sentence correct? Post your ideas in the comments. Hint: It here is referring to the cat from the previous example.



Back to English and those apostrophes!