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 Strikingly.com instead. You can read it here: http://eagleeyeinshanghai.strikingly.com/#blog.

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.

 

 

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Back to English and those apostrophes!

Apostrophe Addicts Abound

apostrophe horrorOne of the fads that I just don’t get is the current fascination with apostrophes. They’re popping up everywhere they don’t belong. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret: They are very easy to control, and you don’t even have to go to an AAA meeting!

Whenever you see an apostrophe, just stop and say (to yourself or out loud, works either way) the two complete words that are missing (contraction). If it makes sense, fine. No change is needed. But what if no words are missing, or it doesn’t make sense? Then, does the word with the apostrophe own something (possession)? If yes, then it’s probably fine. If not, then the apostrophe doesn’t belong there. Then you will have to figure out what goes there instead, which can get tricky with some of them. Let’s practice with some easier ones first. We’ll take on the more difficult ones in our next blog post.

List of standard contractions

EXAMPLE: What’s for dinner?

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

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

CORRECT: What’s for dinner?

EXAMPLE: The dog’s tail was broken.

1. You see an apostrophe, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: The word dog’s is not a contraction, so no words are missing.

2. In that case, does the word with the apostrophe own something? Yes, the dog owns his tail.

3. No change is needed, because the apostrophe is showing possession.

CORRECT: The dog’s tail was broken.

EXAMPLE: The veterinarian thinks it’s going to heal.

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

2. The veterinarian thinks it is going to heal. That makes sense, so no change is needed, because the apostrophe is taking the place of the two complete words (contraction).

CORRECT: The veterinarian thinks it’s going to heal.

EXAMPLE: The dog’s paw’s are bloody, too.

1. You see an apostrophe, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: The word dog’s is not a contraction, so no words are missing.

2. In that case, does the word with the apostrophe own something? Yes, the dog owns his paws, so no change is needed there. But don’t forget the other apostrophe.

3. You see another apostrophe, so you stop and say the two words that are missing: The word paw’s is not a contraction, so no words are missing.

4. In that case, does the word with the apostrophe own something? No, the paws do not own anything.

5. No contraction and no possession= no apostrophe needed. Get rid of it!

CORRECT: The dog’s paws are bloody, too.

Since this is English, there are exceptions to these guidelines, of course. We’ll tackle those next time, when we work on weird possessives such as whose/who’s, it’s/its and those pesky yard signs that say The Smiths’.

Apostrophe Addicts Abound

Who, whom, whose?

“He is who?” “Him is whom?” That’s right, I recently explained to a friend about how to determine which of these pronouns to use. Who is the subjective form (used as the subject of a phrase), just as he and she are the subjective forms. And whom is the objective form (used as the object of a phrase), just as him and her are the objective forms. So, to help you figure out which one is correct, you could change it to she/he or him/her, even if it doesn’t make sense for the meaning of the sentence. You might need to turn the phrase around a bit, also. And make sure you’re only considering its use in the clause it begins. It gets even trickier with questions. More on those later.

Let’s start with statements:

EXAMPLE: He is a leader who/whom everyone likes.

1. Separate the clause: who/whom everyone likes.

2. Determine how it’s being used in the clause: Everyone is the subject. Likes is the verb. He/him is the direct object, which means it should be in the objective case.

3. Substitute another form, if needed. Everyone likes him. Him = whom. Therefore, the correct choice is the objective form whom.

CORRECT: He is a leader whom everyone likes.

EXAMPLE: I think she is the one who/whom spilled the milk.

1. Separate the clause: who/whom spilled the milk.

2. Determine how it’s being used in the clause: Who/whom is the subject, which means it should be in the subjective case. Spilled is the verb. Milk is the direct object.

3. Substitute another form, if needed. She spilled the milk. She = who. Therefore, the correct choice is the subjective form who.

CORRECT: I think she is the one who spilled the milk.

Got it? OK, let’s work on questions. You can change the question to a statement to help you figure out how it’s being used in the clause or sentence.

EXAMPLE: Who/whom were you talking to?

1. Turn it into a statement: You were walking to who/whom.

2. Determine how it’s being used in the sentence: You is the subject. Were talking is the verb. Who/whom is the direct object, so it should be in the objective case.

3. Substitute another form, if needed: You were talking to him. Him=whom. Therefore, the correct form is the objective form whom.

CORRECT: Whom were you talking to?

Extra credit if you know what a predicate nominative is! It follows a to be verb form and renames the subject. It always takes the subjective case.

EXAMPLE: Who/whom is your partner?

1. Turn it into a statement: Your partner is who/whom.

2. Determine how it’s being used in the clause: Partner is the subject. Is, is the verb, a form of to be. Who/whom is the predicate nominative. It follows is and renames the subject.

3. Predicate nominatives always take the subjective form. Therefore, the correct choice is the subjective form who.

CORRECT: Who is your partner?

So, where does whose come in, you ask? It doesn’t! Not here anyway. It is a completely different form: a possessive. It is only used to show possession. Not to be confused with who’s, which is only a contraction of who is. And those, my children, are a story for another night …

Who, whom, whose?

Ask “Old” Eagle Eye …

eagle with textThroughout my more than 20 years in mass communications, I’ve been known by nicknames such as “Eagle Eye,” “Grammar Queen,” “AP Style Nazi” and more.  I’ve taught editing to those who thought they would never have to diagram a sentence again. Actually, I never had to do that, nor did I make my students, but it’s a good reference nonetheless. Now I am taking your questions. Everything you ever wanted to know (and more!) about grammar, editing, Associated Press style … Go!

Ask “Old” Eagle Eye …