What is it with the apostrophe? Slacker among punctuation marks, it has only two jobs: to indicate letters missing from word contractions, and to form possessive nouns. Yet you’d think it was a semicolon or an em-dash or something equally obscure, as often as writers botch its deployment.
English nouns get by quite nicely without the complex inflections of other languages.1 For the most part, they don’t change form as they switch cases between subject and object, since English relies on word order to convey those meanings. To form plurals, nouns need only an additional letter or two. One dog becomes two dogs, whether the dog chases the cat or the girls walk their dogs. And much to the relief of anyone who’s had to learn English, you don’t need an entire case to indicate possession — you just need an apostrophe-s, so that the girl can scratch her dog’s ears.
Pronouns, on the other hand, are the language’s stunt doubles, standing in for nouns taking a breather lest they wear out their welcome. Unlike nouns, pronouns retain at least the spirit of Latin’s inflected-ness by changing form as they change case and number. He becomes him or his, and two or more he‘s become they, them or their.2 Hardy and self-reliant, pronouns disdain the apostrophe, except in forming contractions.
This last truth, however, seems to lie undiscovered among contemporary writers of English, because every day — in publications both obscure and prestigious — someone apostrophe-slaps a pronoun, trying to coax a possessive from it. Forgivable, perhaps, in an unedited blog. But amazingly, this gets past writers and editors in publications that pay their people to know better.
A frequent victim of unwanted apostrophic harassment is it, that humble, neuter, third-person, singular pronoun. How hard can it be to get a two-letter word right? It remains it whether subject or object, and when two or more it’s congregate, their singular it–ness gives way to a common, plural they–hood. And, unlike he and his, and they and their, it wants only a tacked-on s — sans apostrophe — to indicate possession.
Yet I’ve seen apostrophes studding every it-ish interstice like shrapnel, as if a desperate writer, wanting to dislodge a recalcitrant possessive holed up in the language bunker, lobbed in a punctuation grenade. It’s [sic]? Its’ [SIC!]? Makes you want to weep. You’d think someone dropped their Elements of Style on it’s [SIC! SIC!] spine, and spilled all the letters.
Doing it right is so simple: if you are tempted to write it’s or their’s or some other apostrophic abomination when you want to indicate pronoun possession, stop and read the sentence aloud. Substitute it is for it’s, or there is for their’s. If the sentence sounds right and makes sense, then you’re good to go. If not, ditch the apostrophe and move along.
- Seven Latin cases, two numbers, and three genders’ worth of noun and pronoun forms, times five declensions of nouns. Plus the irregulars. Amazing the Romans found time to subjugate the world, with all that grammar to master. Apparently Greek was just as bad. ↩
- Corresponding to the Latin nominative, accusative/dative/ablative, and genitive cases, respectively. ↩