The Sneaky Apostrophe

by sue on November 15, 2009

Once upon a time we didn’t have spelling checkers. We had editors, teachers and our own discerning eyeballs to spot our mistakes so we could correct them. Today, with the touch of a key, we can identify all the errors in our writing and the software will magically fix them. Only it doesn’t.

Your spelling checker isn’t as smart as you are. It knows if a word is spelled correctly; however, it doesn’t know if the word is used correctly. Or if a stray apostrophe sneaked in when you weren’t looking.

Here’s an example: “I gave my paper’s to my friends brother.” If you’re paying careful attention, you’ll notice that two words in that sentence are misspelled. “Paper’s” is the possessive form (as in, belonging to the paper) when it should be in the plural form, “papers” (as in, more than one paper). The word “friends” appears in the plural (more than one friend) when you mean to use the possessive (belonging to my friend). Your spell checker won’t spot that error. There’s a good chance your reader will.

Pluralization is just one area where apostrophes sometimes wander in error. Other apostrophizing problems that don’t get caught by the software are: “they’re” (when you mean their or there) and “you’re” (when you mean your) and “it’s” (a contraction of it is) when you mean “its” (belonging to it). The it’s/its problem is one I still have, even after all these years, mostly because it’s illogical that the rule for something belonging to it (“its” without an apostrophe) would be exactly the reverse of the rule for something belonging to Jenna (“Jenna’s” with an apostrophe).

So how do we avoid this problem? With Rule #4: Use and love your “trusty” spell checker. But don’t trust it absolutely. Trust what you see with your own eyes after the spell check does its job.

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