Occasional Writing Tips from Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter : #1 The Apostrofly
The apostrofly is a nasty but industrious little insect. She can lay her eggs almost anywhere — she’s not picky about nest sites, though she is rumoured to be fond of the greengrocer’s veg display — and her eggs hatch out into little black maggots that try to crawl all over a writer’s perfect pages.
There is, sadly, no easy solution. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use a can of insecticide and kill them all off?
One quick spritz of Miracle Apostroflee and all the incorrect apostrophes disappear from the page while any missing ones are inserted in exactly the right places.
Not a chance.
Sadly, it’s more like going out with a torch at midnight to pick little black slugs off your precious cabbage seedlings, one by one. Yucky business, takes a while, your back aches at the end of it and your only real satisfaction is dropping the little bodies into the salt water that will kill them.
But there are tests and tips that can make the task less back-breaking.
Apostrofly tip #1 — when it’s its not it’s — the always-and-only test
The apostrophe always[†] tells us there’s something missing. So it’s is a shortened form of it is. Always. And only. Unless you can replace your it’s with it is, then the apostrophe should come out and the correct version is its. Always-and-only. NO exceptions. NONE.
“But it’s is a possessive!” I hear you cry. “How can it be wrong to write: the apostrofly left it’s pile of poo on my page?”
Answer — would you write: “The apostrofly left hi’s pile of poo on my page?” Isn’t his a possessive, too? So why no apostrophe?
There’s no apostrophe, because there’s nothing missing.
If you’re still not convinced, apply Pedantique-Ryter’s always-and-only-it-is test. Replace it’s with it is. That sentence becomes: “The apostrofly left it is pile of poo on my page.” And we’ve found our instant answer. It’s obvious that the sentence has turned into nonsense.
The correct version is not it’s; it’s its.
“The apostrofly left its pile of poo on my page.”
Well, it tried, but we’ve discovered how to clean it up. Instantly and painlessly.
Fanfare of trumpets!
The always-and-only-it-is test tells you whether it’s its or it’s.
Apostrofly tip #2 — ‘s or s’ — the what-do-you-say test
Should we write James’s book? or James’ book? Is it correct to have St Thomas’ Hospital up there as the branding or should it be St Thomas’s Hospital? What about his mistress’s house’s sexy boudoir? Or should that be his mistress’ house’s sexy boudoir? Or even his mistress’ house’ sexy boudoir?
Pat your poor tormented coiffure back into place and apply Pedantique-Ryter’s what-do-you-say test. Say the phrase out loud. Do you actually say: Jamez book? No. What you actually say is: Jamezez book. So write what you say. Write: James’s book. Do you say: Saint Thomas Hospital? No. What you actually say is: Saint Thomasez Hospital. So write: St Thomas’s Hospital. And yes, I do know that the sign on that blessed hospital does not have the ‘s. I commuted past it for years and it raised my blood pressure every single time because they are committing A Hanging Offence in the Pedantique-Ryter Book of Paines and Penaltyes. (OK — end of rant.)
Same for his mistress’s house’s sexy boudoir. Except that most writers would never use something so clumsy. In most contexts, the sexy boudoir tucked away in his mistress’s house, or something like that, would be much better. But his mistressez housez sexy boudoir is what we say aloud so his mistress’s house’s sexy boudoir is what we should write. Even if we groan while we do so.
The what-do-you-say test tells you when it’s ‘s not s’.
Back soon with more writing tips and tools
[†] Pedantique-Ryter’s Don’t-Need-To-Read Geeknotes #1
Yes, the apostrophe does always indicate that something is missing. Even in a phrase like John’s book or his master’s voice. Way back when English was just a tantrumming toddler of a language, the formulation for a possessive was rather a mouthful. Early English used: John his book or his master his voice. Not surprisingly, it soon got shortened in the spoken language and the possessive his became little more than an additional s or z sound on the end of the main word. But in the written form, the apostrophe is still used to show that his has been shortened to s. Now, aren’t you just thrilled that you read this far?