Today's suggestion for making people admire your mind involves understanding the odd squiggle sometimes referred to as a "flying comma"; actually, it's the often-mysterious little mark, the apostrophe (uh-POS-tro-fee). The supposed complexities of this punctuation item loom heavily over anyone who may have misplaced the rules. For those who know them, its use is as simple as a Monarch settling on a marigold. This time we'll takes swipes at the mark as it pokes itself into contractions (words that drop letters to sound more informal and to be quicker to say, for example "don't" rather than "do not").

To use an apostrophe in a contraction, you only need one general rule: the mark is placed to show where a letter is missing, the one that was dropped. The apostrophe stands for the invisible letter (or letters). That is, the squiggle doesn't just splatter down anywhere in the word at random.

Here are some examples:

do not -- don't
should not -- shouldn't
had not -- hadn't
I have -- I've
we have -- we've
he had -- he'd
here is -- here's

Here's one that causes confusion: you all -- y'all (See how ya'll is illogical?)

Remember to put the apostrophe where the letters are missing.

And here's one that's an outright trap: it is -- it's

Maybe that seems simple enough, but because "it's" means "it is," this arrangement can't be used in front of a noun. For instance, think about what this sentence means:

The puppy shoved it's alligator under the rug.

Does "The puppy shoved it is alligator" make sense? Not at all, but slapping "it's" into any old sentence happens continually, everywhere. So what's the solution? You need the possessive pronoun "its"&emdash;no apostrophe, not ever, not even after the "s." The corrected sentence should read:

The puppy shoved its alligator under the rug.

This last point is one to master; it can make you look incredibly smart or hopelessly non-smart depending on how well you learn it. Go for lookin' smart!

 

Self-test

Here are a few sentences to secretly test how successfully you've inserted this factoid. Answers and encouragement appear at www.KathyAlba.com (When you get there, click on "Factoidinsertionemia").

1. Change "cannot" (notice that it's one word&emdash;not "can not") to a contraction: Honeysuckle cannot grow in tar.

2. Change "how is" to a contraction: How is it going?

3. Is this correct or not? That turtle set it's shell in the sugar bowl.

4. What are the missing letters in this sentence: 's up?

5. Should this sentence have an apostrophe: His heads underwater.

6. Or should this one: That names tricky to pronounce.

7. Comment on two items here: Its a shame that bean plant has never seen it's shadow.

8. And in this: Its lucky the persimmon kept it's seeds inside.

 

Factoid Answers

1. Honeysuckle can't grow in tar.

2. How's it going?

3. That turtle set its shell in the sugar bowl. (Note: it's = "it is shell")

4. What's up?

5. His head's (head is) underwater.

6. That name's (name is) tricky to pronounce.

7. It's (it is) a shame that bean plant has never seen its (not "it is") shadow.

8. It's (it is) lucky the persimmon kept its (not "it is") seeds inside.

 


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Kathy Alba, Ph.D. is author of Speaking and Writing Well: Empowering Yourself with "Proper" English, Your Dynamite Guide to Conquering the World.