As an English teacher, people assume that I’m a natural grammar whiz. While I’ve always had a knack for writing and language, my focus in school was on literature and analysis rather than the proper usage of pronouns. Grammar is the tedious part of writing (most people I talk to don’t exactly loooove proofreading). Plus, some rules of grammar are so ingrained in our brains due to constant use and repetition that you just do them without thinking twice; I can use appositive phrases like nobody’s business, but if you ask me to explain the rules behind them I’d have to put my thinking cap on.
Ask a twelve-year old what an appositive phrase is, and you’ve got a whole new ballgame.
Which got me thinking: sure, my students are still learning grammar, but what about all of the poorly worded, grammatically butchered Facebook posts I see from adults? What about the misspellings on signs at the grocery store, and the incorrect terms used in commercials? Couldn’t adults use a grammar refresher too?
And so I’ve started this bi-weekly writing and grammar feature, Intensive Purposes. A pun on the misquoted phrase “for all intents and purposes”, Intensive Purposes tackles one grammar rule or English language tip — from proper punctuation to misused phrases — in an easy-to-understand mini-lesson. Language is fluid and constantly changing, and there certainly are exceptions to the rules, but I’m pretty sure when to use there/their/they’re isn’t going to be changing any time soon (watch, tomorrow I’ll wake up and the universe will declare me wrong).
First up: apostrophes.
There’s actually quite a bit to apostrophes, but rather than beat you over the head with 4,012 rules, I figured we’d take it one step at a time. Sure, apostrophes sound like easy, basic stuff, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen bloggers (and writers…and students) misuse them!
Apostrophes indicate possession. If someone owns something, or something belongs to someone, you use an apostrophe .The dog’s collar.
It doesn’t even have to be a physical item; it can be abstract, but it still belongs to someone. Jane’s idea.
The book’s pages. Batman’s cape.
If the ring belongs to a group of hobbits, it’s “The hobbits’ ring.” — the apostrophe comes after the word ‘hobbits’, already plural because you’ve got more than one of them. If the ring just belongs to Bilbo, it’s “The hobbit’s ring.” (If you’re Gollum and say “hobbitses”, that’s another story.)
Apostrophes never make something plural. Cat’s does not mean more than one cat. It means you’re going to talk about something that belongs to the cat, like the cat’s box. I know it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many times people get it wrong. We’ll move on to apostrophes, level 2 (how cool would grammar EXP be!?) soon, because names that end in an ‘s’ and last names, and things like decades and the like can get confusing, but make sure you master the basics first.