Battling with English - part 2 (HPR Show 2596)

Dave Morriss


Table of Contents

Further notes about 'then' and 'than'

In the last episode I mentioned the confusion between then and than. I referred to the etymology of the two words, but I didn’t go into detail.

Reading the Online Etymology Dictionary, one interesting point in the page about than is that it was:

Developed from the adverb then, and not distinguished from it by spelling until c. 1700.

So, it would seem that the two words are related and historically were the same! However, I’d guess that it is unlikely that people using them interchangeably now are making reference to usage in the 1700’s.


Problems with apostrophes

Let us now examine the apostrophe, which is a punctuation mark. It is used for:

  • Indicating that letters have been omitted, such as in a contracted form of words. For example when the phrase they are is contracted to they’re.

  • Turning a word into a possessive form such as in the cat’s paw

  • When the plural of a single letter (or digit) is required such as in dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

There are other uses but you can look at the Wikipedia article for them if you want to dig deeper. I may well revisit this topic in a later show in this series.

Apostrophes in contractions

The term contraction describes the written form of a shortened word. In linguistics the terms used for this process are elision and deletion, meaning the omission of one or more sounds. This is usually done to make words easier to pronounce as we’ll see in the following examples.

In English there are many cases where the apostrophe is used to signal that letters have been omitted. Some examples are:

Long form Contracted form
cannot can’t
I am I’m
you are you’re
is not isn’t
let us let’s
it is it’s

The apostrophe in can’t indicates that it is a contraction and not a word of its own. Had it been written as cant then that would have been an entirely different word (cant means hypocritical and sanctimonious talk).

The same sort of argument can be made for other cases.

Apostrophes in possessives

If you look at the linguistic arguments in the Wikipedia article you will see that this particular use of the apostrophe is wider than just the possessive usage, but we will not go into too much detail here.

There tends to be a lot of confusion about this use of the apostrophe, which we will look at in this episode.

Plural forms of words

Because there seems to be a lot of confusion in regard to possessives and plurals it seems a good idea to consider this subject first. Plurals are often (but not always) formed by adding an ‘s’ (or 'es') to the end of a word. These words do not take apostrophes:

Singular Plural Ending
cat cats s
crocodile crocodiles s
programmer programmers s
sandwich sandwiches es
volcano volcanoes es

Of course, there are other plurals in English. The plural of child is not childs but children. The plural of amoeba is not strictly amoebas but amoebae, because the word has a Latin origin. (However, amoebas is gaining acceptance, though it was not acceptable during my education.)

Possessive forms of words

This seems to be one of the main issues that puzzles some people. There is a difference between cats and cat’s. You would write:

I have two cats  ✔

Meaning you have two feline friends. You would not write:

I have two cat’s  ✖

This is an incomplete sentence. You are saying you have two things belonging to cats (possessed by them) but you haven’t said what the things are, so the sentence makes no sense. The word cat’s here is not the plural of cat.

You could write:

This is my cat’s basket  ✔

Which means the basket belonging to your cat.

Word Singular Possessive Example
cat cat’s This cat’s fur is black
crocodile crocodile’s A crocodile’s teeth can regenerate many times
programmer programmer’s A programmer’s life is a hard one
sandwich sandwich’s This is my sandwich’s filling

Possessive forms of plural words

What if you want to express the idea of possession by many things? To write about a toy owned by several cats you’d write something like:

The cats’ catnip mouse makes a sound when moved.  ✔

Other examples:

The boys’ bedrooms are down this way.  ✔

Things get a little more complex when the plural is not formed by just adding an s, such as in manmen:

Follow the signs to the men’s changing rooms  ✔

This is because men doesn’t end with an s whereas boys does.

Why? What is the apostrophe replacing?

This question is dealt with rather well in the Grammar Monster section on Using Apostrophes.

To paraphrase the boxed item on the cited page:

  • Historically English added es to a noun to show possession.
    • The toy of a single dog would have been a doges toy
    • The toys of a single dog would have been a doges toys
    • The toy of multiple dogs would have been the dogses toy
    • The mother of multiple children would have been the childrenes mother
    • The emblem of the country Wales would have been Waleses emblem
  • Over time the e in es was replaced by an apostrophe, and if that left “s’s” at the end of a word the last s was removed
    • The toy of a single dog became a dog’s toy
    • The toys of a single dog became a dog’s toys
    • The toy of multiple dogs became the dogs toy
    • The mother of multiple children became the children’s mother
    • The emblem of the country Wales became Wales emblem

This explanation helped me, so I hope it helps you too.

Use of apostrophes with single letters and digits

As mentioned already the apostrophe is used when a plural form of a single letter or digit is required.

This is a little confusing but makes sense when you think about it. As Grammar Girl puts it:

The apostrophe is especially important when you are writing about a’s, i’s, and u’s because without the apostrophe readers could easily think you are writing the words as, is, and us.

The one that catches everyone at some time

Given what we’ve seen so far, you might expect that the word it when made possessive would become it’s, but that is wrong! In fact, the word it’s is an abbreviation for it is.

Examples:

It’s very warm in Scotland at the moment.  ✔

Here it’s means it is.

It’s been interesting researching this topic.  ✔

Short for it has.

The horse stamped its feet, shook its head, and neighed.  ✔

Two possessives: its feet, its head.

Why?

The its/it’s issue has evolved to be that way.

It is likely that this has happened to make the possessive its conform to some of the other possessives like yours, his, hers, ours, theirs, and whose.

Remember: it’s always means it is or it has.


Examples of what you should never write:

Apple’s £2.00 per Kilo  ✖

This is a case of the so-called Greengrocer’s Apostrophes (also Greengrocers’ Apostrophes - I hope you now understand why either way of writing the name is acceptable!)

This mistake is astonishingly common; in some cases writers seem to assume all words that end in ‘s’ should have an apostrophe. Don’t add an apostrophe to a word just because the word ends with the letter s!

These banana’s are overripe, we should have bought fewer  ✖

Here we need the plural form bananas, not the possessive form.

Example from Grammar Monster:

I like pig’s. Dog’s look up to us. Cat’s look down on us. Pig’s treat us as equal’s.  ✖

Every plural in this example has been written incorrectly as a possessive with an apostrophe. See the site for many more!


Future episodes on apostrophes

I have tried to make this episode as straightforward as I can. However, there are other factors such as what the various writing style guides say, and how some of the edge conditions are handled, that complicate matters.

If it seems like a good idea I may go into more detail in a later episode of this series. The Wikipedia reference below covers many of these topics, so you may wish to refer to it for more information. Many of the other references also explain things in very helpful ways.

If there are other aspects of the apostrophe subject that you would like me to look at in the future please let me know.