Proofreading for the Correct Use of Apostrophes.
Apostrophes are surprisingly difficult to use. They shouldn’t be. The rules surrounding them are straightforward. But even if you can get a handle on the rules, which I’ll talk about in the moment, errors can be difficult to spot when they inevitably slip through the editorial net.
I had a document back from a very pleased editor today, which is a nice thing to happen. However, looking at the text, the first thing I noticed was that I had written “the doors over there” as the penultimate piece of dialogue. I didn’t spot the mistake, my readers didn’t spot it, and the editor didn’t spot it. Apostrophes are tricky beggars*.
You may be asking yourself what the mistake was. It’s impossible to tell without the context – but the context is that the character is trying to indicate the location of a particular door, ie. the door is over there, rather than pointing out a particularly interesting group of doors. So the sentence should be “the door’s over there” not the “doors over there.” This sort of error is easy to miss. Given the right context, the incorrect sentence would be correct. Mis-used apostrophes can easily appear in the guise of misplaced words are awkward ideas.
So what are the rules for apostrophes?
Apostrophes indicated contractions or possessives. Contractions are where one or more letters have been omitted; cannot becomes can’t, we will becomes we’ll; he would have becomes he’d’ve. Yep, that last one is right, promise. The apostrophes appear where the omitted words would have been (would’ve been). Contractions are typically considered more informal than using the full words, so more appropriate for a blog than an essay, and certainly not appropriate for a legal opinion.
Many contractions will only really appear in dialogue. He’d’ve probably belongs only between speech marks. Other contractions have become the normal means of spelling the word. Fo’c’s’le, now often written fo’c’sle, used to be known as the forecastle and is a part of a ship. However, apostrophes are not used where the shortened word is what is known as a clipped form. Gym, phone, pro, and deli are clipped forms of gymnasium, telephone, professional and delicatessen, but do not require an apostrophe.
Possessives are used where the second thing is owned by the first, and are shown by an apostrophe followed by an s; Keith’s blog, reader’s headache. This is, however, where all hell starts breaking loose in the world of the apostrophe. Not because it is difficult, but because people get possessives and plurals mixed up all the time; so we get Keiths blog (a blog about the Keiths of the world), kitten’s for sale, and “the doors over there.”
Mixing up possessives and plurals is an ugly error that’s really easy to do. It looks right enough that if you are writing in a hurry it is easy to miss. And when you’re checking it you have to understand what the writer meant before you can tell if it is wrong or not.
Honourable mention must be made, for the sake of completeness, of the difference between “it’s” and “its” (“it’s” is the contraction of it is, “its” is the possessive indicated something belongs to it – just something you’ve got to learn). It should also be noted that the correct spelling of possessive words ending with an “s” is largely a question of style. Whether you describe the empire belonging to Augustus as Augustus’ empire or Augustus’s empire is up to you, although for my money Strunk is losing the battle and Augustus’ empire is better. I’ll probably change my mind about that tomorrow.
Even if you know the rules, how do you deal with mistakes slipping through? The obvious thing to do is to watch out for it in your proofreading – and for goodness sakes do proofread – ideally after you’ve had a night to sleep on it. But proofreading is a complicated exercise, and it’s easy to lose track of the apostrophes in all the other things you are looking for.
The most recent thing I’ve been trying is using a function in word 2010 that allows you to use wildcard placeholders in your searches. First you need to open up the advanced find option box, in the home tab, and click “use wildcards”.
Now the search function will not let you look for apostrophes themselves (although if someone can correct me on this I’ll be happy). But we know that the most common errors are mixing up plurals and possessives (ie. Two different types of words that end with “s”), and mixing up its and it’s, and wildcards can help with this. Another good one to look out for is “your” and “you’re”
Typing “>s” in your search box in the navigation pane will now highlight every word that ends with s.
Typing “<it” will highlight every time you’ve started a word “it”. Sadly I can’t get it to only give me “its” or “it’s” yet (the search box doesn’t like apostrophes, which seems appropriate).
Typing “<you” will give you all your yous, yours and you’res. Note that if we’re cheeky enough to transform “you” from a pronoun to a noun then the correct plural form is yous not you’s.
Using wildcards like this is still rather painstaking, but it does allow you to do a specific search for apostrophe errors without getting distracted by all the other things you end up looking at when proofreading. Wildcards are worth playing with; searching for K??th will give you all the words starting with “K” and ending with “th” with two letters in between, useful if you have a habit of mixing up your I’s and e’s when spelling Keith (or field or shield or weird). “F*t” will find any string of letters starting with F and ending with T, such as fit, forest, or flabbergasted.
Using this approach to highlight specific errors that you know are likely to crop up allows you to concentrate on fixing the particular problem. With something as dull as this sort of task, anything that helps you focus is valuable. But it’s important. You feel like a right idiot when you get it wrong***, and more importantly, your reader won’t understand you – because won’t and wont mean completely different things.
* I think I must have written “apostrophe’s” then corrected it to “apostrophes” about twenty times writing this article. Damn you apostrophes, damn you!!!
**If you want more on apostrophes and other punctuation insights, I strongly recommend Trask’s excellent Penguin Guide to Punctuation. And no, not just because he used “the Klingons’ attack” as an illustration of the possessive plural. But it helped. See Trask RL, The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, Penguin (London: 1997)
*** One of the scarier things about writing articles on grammar and punctuation as part of an effort to improve your grammar and punctuation is it makes you extra terrified of making mistakes. Which of course I will! Point them out to me and I’ll be sure to correct them.