‘Tis the Season for Apostrophes

‘Tis the season. ‘Twas the night before Christmas. ‘Til we meet again. I’m tellin’ you! Christmas is full of apostrophes. But what exactly are apostrophes, and why are they always used wrong? If you Google search Christmas apostrophes you will find several articles about how to write last names properly on greets cards. So clearly apostrophes are important for many reasons during the Christmas season!

Complex Contractions

Let’s start with the ’tis and the ’twas, shall we. In English we like to drop letters for effect (or to keep a word count in a line, right Shakespeare?). In older poetry and, yes, Shakespeare plays, you’ll find a lot of apostrophes. Basically, the punctuation mark shows where letters (or a letter) have been left out. The punctuation mark replaces the letter. For example, ‘Tis this season (it is the season), or ‘Twas the night before Christmas (it was…), I’m telling’ you (telling you). So be sure that the apostrophe punctuation mark is placed where the letters were taken out. (Tis’ the season= incorrect; ‘Tis the season= correct) So if you’re reading some poetry or a play and there are a lot of apostrophes, try to figure out what letters are missing to complete the word.

Contractions

This function of the apostrophe also works with contractions. This one we’re more familiar with! I can’t, I haven’t, I won’t. I cannot, I have not, I will not. Once again, the apostrophe punctuation mark shows that letters have been taken out, and the punctuation mark is placed where those letters should be. We are probably the most comfortable with this use of the apostrophe because this one makes the most sense, and we see it the most. If you’re writing something formal, like a letter to the Government, a university, or some other official, avoid using contractions. Contractions are informal (and like a lot of rules in English, come from how we speak the language).

Possession

What about it’s or its? Great question. That moves us into the realm of the possessive. We use apostrophes to show ownership. Ken’s apartment. Ahila’s dog. Shelia’s ideas. That’s all well and good when it’s a single person or noun, but what about plural proper nouns? Is it Jess’ new jersey or Jess’s new jersey? Well, that all depends on what style guide you follow. The formal guides like MLA and APA, for example, say to include that s after the plural: Jess’s new jersey. But more informal rules say it’s okay to leave off that last s: Jess’ new jersey. In business writing there is a movement to remove clutter, so I feel that in the future it will more acceptable to drop that last s after a proper noun. So for now, know your audience. If you’re writing something formal, include that s (Jess’s), but if it’s something more informal, leave that s off. As with a lot of grammar rules, you get a choice! But if it’s just a regular noun (not a name), you don’t ever have to include an extra s. Confused? That’s okay…here are some examples:

  • Jess’s new jersey is perfect.
  • The scissors’ colour is coming off.
  • Kevin’s house is pretty small.
  • The jeans’ buttons are too big.

What about plural nouns without an s? Like children. Or a list, like talking about two people’s cat? There are some rules to help you out! First, with plural nouns like children, just add the apostrophe + s: Children’s festival. Second, if you’re talking about two people, add the s on the second name: Mike and Tobi’s new cat. Unless Mike has a cat and Tobi has a cat, then it’s Mike’s and Tobi’s cats because there are two cats, each belonging to one person. There are more rules and ways to use apostrophes with possessives, so maybe it’s worth a look on a style guide website if you have questions that are a bit tricky.

So what about it’s or its?

  • It’s = it is. (It’s time to take the cookies out of the oven.)
  • Its = possessive of it. (Its first attempt was actually good.)

Final thought:

So what about writing last names on Christmas cards? Easy. If you are addressing an envelop, don’t include an apostrophe: The Woods, The Morrows, The Monkmans. If you are talking about the Monkmans’ Christmas tree, then you’d use an apostrophe because you are showing that the Monkmans own that tree. Kevin Monkman picks great trees. Here’s another example: It’s fun going to the Jones’s (or Jones’) house at Christmas because they make the best egg nog. I love the Jones.

Like all grammar rules, once you start to understand the purpose, the rules start to make sense. ‘Tis the season for understanding how to use the apostrophe properly! Good luck.