At a Phoenix Suns games some years ago, I found myself in front of a sign reading “Visitor’s locker room.”
This is going to be a cake game, I thought. The Suns are playing against only one guy, and that’s his room.
We seem to have enormous trouble with the smallest pieces of the sentence. A great example is the apostrophe – this little bugger (‘). It’s often thrown in willy-nilly with little thought about how it is supposed to affect meaning.
Here is the easy way to remember when to use the apostrophe:
- Someone owns something.
- Something is missing
When it is ownership, think of the apostrophe as the arrow that points to the owner. If it is Bob’s motorcycle, then the arrow (apostrophe) points at Bob. That works the same with plural possessive. A doctor’s hospital is owned by one; a doctors’ hospital by many.
This is important. Look how often the Arizona-based Bashas’ brand is butchered. The family didn’t call it Basha market (a brand) or Basha’s market (owned by one dude named Basha). Family members called it Bashas’ – an intentional plural possessive to tell the world that many in the family were behind the store. The arrow (apostrophe) points to multiple Bashas, not just one. Yet people in Arizona throw that apostrophe in anywhere, often excluding all but one Basha, or removing the ownership element entirely. Eddie, Sr. and Ike must spin in their graves.
- Musicians piano = a piano used by musicians
- Musician’s piano = a piano owned by a singular musician
- Musicians’ piano = a piano owned by multiple musicians
If you wondered what I meant about the visitor’s locker room in the first sentence, go back to it now and see if it makes sense. If not, read from the beginning to here again.
Something is missing.
What we’re talking about is a contraction.
In the previous sentence, we could have said, “What we are talking about . . .” We shortened it from “we are” to “we’re.” The apostrophe substituted for the space and the “a”. You use “can’t” instead of “cannot,” “doesn’t” instead of “does not” and so on.
You know this stuff. (You got it sometime in grade school, I’m certain.) I’m being intentionally basic to make the point that one doesn’t throw in an apostrophe without a reason – it is not just an accessory to go with words like a decorative scarf with a favorite outfit. It must have a purpose. If you know the purpose, you will use it correctly. If you don’t, you might look stupid.
People commonly misuse the apostrophe with dates, a good illustration of not thinking it through.
Which is the correct usage to describe the decade of the Beatles?
The answer is D, none of the above, unless the point is that the decade owns something, in which case 1960’s would be correct (that was not the question asked, though). What you should use is 1960s, which is merely plural, or the ‘60s, using the apostrophe to substitute for something missing (in this case, “19”).
So it’s something owned or something missing. It’s simple.
One last thing: its and it’s. You’re just going to have to remember this one.
The contraction trumps the possessive, so “it’s” means “it is,” and “its” means something owned by it.
It’s a beautiful day in Arizona.
Its fur was glistening.
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