The Stratton Craig Grammar Guide – The Apostrophe
I’ve always been a stickler for grammar – there’s nothing better than seeing a correctly-placed hyphen and a sentence split by superbly-sited commas. In my new series of blog posts, I’ll be demystifying some of the basics of grammar and spelling to make your day that little bit more grammatically spot-on.
Few grammatical rules strike such fear into the heart of the untrained writer than the apostrophe. This high-flying cousin of the comma can – just like a comma – change the entire meaning of a sentence. In this, our first foray into the often challenging world of grammar, we’ll be looking at the impact of the apostrophe and the correct way to use it.
Study the sentences below: which of the two is the correct statement?
– The cat’s got the cream.
– The cats got the cream.
We’ll come clean – this one was a trick question to get the grammatical juices flowing! In fact, both of the statements are correct, although there is a difference between them. In the first sentence, just one sneaky cat has swiped the cream; in the other, it’s multiple moggies that have nabbed the dairy produce together.
A closer look…
In the first instance, it’s a single cat that has got the cream so the apostrophe takes the place of the word ‘has’. You can also use this for possession, showing that something belongs to someone or something. So, if we said that “the cat’s paws are sore”, then it’s time to slap some vet-prescribed cream on your feline’s feet.
However, if we told you that “the cat’s paw’s sore”, we’d only be talking about one of the four paws. In this example, the soreness belongs to the paw, and the paw belongs to the cat. The use of the apostrophe in this example is twofold, as the word “cat’s” shows possession, whilst in the word “paw’s” the word ‘is’ becomes an apostrophe and the letter ‘s’. If you listen carefully to how you describe things during conversation you’ll notice that you use apostrophes in this way whenever you speak to someone.
In cases where more than one person has possession, apostrophes are used slightly differently. When we say “the horse’s food is mouldy”, we’re only talking about one horse’s meal; when we tell you that “the horses’ food is mouldy”, we’re indicating that you’re going to need to shell out for dinner for the aforementioned Appaloosa as well as all his stablemates.
The exception to the rule (because there’s nearly always one!)
The only time you wouldn’t use this method is when you’re taking about a plural word that doesn’t end in the letter ‘s’: in this context, you’ll need to use the same rule as with singular possession. So, the children’s ward in a hospital belongs to the children – already a plural. The same goes for the men’s toilet in the children’s ward – although the same doesn’t apply to the ladies’ toilet, as you can have a lady but not a ‘ladie’.
Apostrophes aren’t scary. Once you know the rules and don’t let them intimidate you, you’ll see that they’re actually a necessary and useful part of the English language. With the basics of apostrophe out of the way, we’ll come back to the more advanced uses of apostrophes later. Stay tuned.