Thursday, November 03, 2011

Apostrophes and pronouns: a confusing combination

I don’t like to rant about little things, but I’ve seen too many instances where supposedly professional writers and editors use “you’re” when they mean “your” and “it’s” instead of “its.” So, I'm dedicating this post to my quasi-regular "grammar tips" feature in hopes of clearing up the confusion.

Most writers, editors and readers I know are willing to forgive the occasional typo, even if it shows a misunderstanding of the right way to do things in English, as long as the overall quality and meaning of the content is good. But little errors erode your credibility, and especially for new writers or those striving to establish a “platform,” that can be a killer.

The source of confusion, I think, is that in English, apostrophes are used for contraction as well as possession, and sometimes, also, for plurals.

I have two proposals to dispel this confusion.

First proposal: discover the consistency

Consistency in spelling is rare in English, a language that seems to have more exceptions than rules. But when it comes to pronouns, the apostrophe always indicates a contraction. In other words, the apostrophe replaces a letter or two.

It’s = it is—“It’s cold in Winnipeg in January.”

Who’s = who is—“Who’s at the door?”

We’re = we are—“Open up! We’re freezing out here! This is Winnipeg, and it’s January!”

They’re = they are—“You better let them in. They’re confused about the date.”

You're = you are—"You're right. It's November, but it's still cold."

That means the respective synonyms without apostrophes are possessive.

Its = belonging to it—“The cat lost its toy under the couch.”

Whose = belonging to who—“Whose cat is that, anyway?”

Their = belonging to them—“They left their cat here because they didn’t want to bring it back to Winnipeg in January.”

Your = belonging to you—"Your cat is very fat."

Second proposal: eliminate the use of apostrophes as plurals

At one time, the apostrophe was used to pluralize single letters or symbols used as words in text and other unusual cases. For example, “The x’s in the expression represent unknown quantities.” “Make sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s in the contract.”

While this makes sense when you listen to the pronunciation, it leads to confusion. How often have you seen an apostrophe used for plural on signs and even in ads?

When I first became an editor (not long after Caesar conquered Gaul), the new idea was to use italics to set off characters used as words and eliminate the apostrophe. To wit:

- “The xs in the expression represent unknown quantities.”

- “Make sure you dot your is and cross your ts in the contract.”

The change will take some getting used to, but I think it will reduce confusion among non-professional writers.

What do you think? By being careful about using apostrophes in combination with pronouns, can we writers bring about change and increase understanding, at least in this small way?


  1. Great reminders. I think the the sentence about dotting your is (i's) looks like the verb so it would confuse me in a sentence. I think my best bet is to avoid sentences like it. LOL Wonderful post! <3

  2. I'd have to say that two, to and too are right up there with there, their and they're. Your and you're is another big one, along with affect vs effect and then vs than.

    Drives me crazy.

  3. Neat explanation, Scott, clear and easy to get.

    Totally agree with the plurals thing - "I was born in the 60s." There's just no need for one. I find the one I keep getting wrong most often is "who's" and "whose"; that's so easy to miss when writing and editing.

  4. I think it's better to use capitals for single letter "wordlets." Thus: Xs and Os; Ps and Qs.

    1. I like this idea. Using "is" in place of i's to pluralize the letter "i" makes sense as without the apostrophe it reads as the verb "is."

    2. I agree. Otherwise, writers and readers might easily confuse "is" for the verb versus for the plural of "i's," as in "dotting your i's." Using capitals for single letter "wordlets" is clearer.

  5. Very useful. I retweeted this to my followers. Helpful of you to take the time and trouble to sum it up nicely. Thanks, Charles.

  6. Very well explained. I'm quite pedantic about those. I have a friend who always mixes up there, their, they're....and it winds me up. Mind you, I'm sure he does it on purpose sometimes.

  7. Great reminder, Scott. They are simple mistakes that can, when corrected, make a difference. I am also favor pointing out grammatical errors and their corrections. Writing has become so sloppy today that, I feel, English and English literature is being shortchanged and weakened. That's why I like the grammar tips section of your blog, Scott. You put things in simple terms with easy to follow rules.

  8. Scott, fantastically explained, just what I need for a tutorial on Friday!