Tag: apostrophe_rule

Its—the possessive form of it—should be spelled with an apostrophe

It’s supposed to be simple. The word “its”—the possessive form of it—is spelled without the apostrophe because it’s a pronoun, even though it is a regular possessive. That’s the rule: nouns spell their possessives with an apostrophe, pronouns don’t. Simple and sensical, isn’t it? Do you agree with this rule? I bet you do, because every single person I’ve had this discussion with has thrown this argument at me. “‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun,” they say, “so it should be spelled without an apostrophe like all other possessive pronouns (my, your, his, her, our, and their).”

Problem is, the rule’s wrong. Most pronouns do spell their possessives with an apostrophe. To wit:

Someone's hat is on the chair.
One's mind must always be focuses.
Whoever's coat is in the hall better pick it up.

By the rule above, these possessive pronouns should be spelled without apostrophes.

“Oh”, but you say, “it’s not any pronouns; it’s just personal pronouns you don’t use the apostrophe with. All other pronouns you use the apostrophe. It’s still a simple rule.”

And it’s still wrong. It doesn’t account for the word “who”, which is not a personal pronoun yet spells its possessive (“whose”) without an apostrophe. The only way to account for both “it” and “who” is to make a complex rule, one with at least two conditions.

“Ok,” you argue, “but it’s still a pretty simple rule: don’t use an apostrophe for personal pronouns or interrogative pronouns.”

Don’t forget that “who” can also be a relative pronoun.

“…or relative pronouns.”

Now it has three conditions, and it’s still wrong. To wit:

The computer that's turned on is wasting power.

True, it’s probably not the best style, but it’s perfectly intelligible and would not ever be spelled without the apostrophe. (And don’t give me any Chomsky bull about “that” being a relativizer here and not a relative pronoun; if it were a relativizer this sentence wouldn’t be intelligible.)

“Ok, fine”, you say, “everything except ‘it’ and ‘who’ uses an apostrophe.”

Now you’ve forgotten about the other personal pronouns.”

“Everything except personal pronouns and ‘who’ uses an apostrophe.”

Ah, finally we have a rule that works. It’s a little ugly because one condition is a class of words and the other is a singular exception, but it’s relatively simple and no actual reader or writer would have difficulty applying it. It’s not the end of the universe. But the thing is, it’s needlessly complex. If we could spell “its” and “whose” with apostrophes, then we would only need a simple rule with one condition: a word who’s possessive is regular spells it’s possessive with an apostrophe.

But, English orthography, being what is is, has to make things complex for us, even simple things like spelling possessive pronouns.

The Apostrophe Rule

The Apostrophe Rule is a rule I made up while advising someone on an Internet forum what to do about his wife who would always talk his ear off. I’ve been told many times how clever the rule is, so I thought I’d share it with the whole world.

The husband in question here didn’t want to shut his wife down completely, I guess because he thought gossiping was the highlight of her day, or something. Anyway I gave him this rule which is designed merely to set boundaries about who she can talk about, and it’s pretty clever. Here is the rule as the husband would dictate it to his wife:

You may not gossip about anyone you need an apostrophe to name.

If you think about it for a moment, it’s clear how and why it works, but I’ll give some examples anyway. First of all, people who are on first name basis with both spouses are acceptable, since they can be named with their actual name, no apostrophe needed. Any relative or friend of the wife would be acceptable; she could name them as “my sister”, “my mom”, “my best friend”, “my coworker”, “my dentist”, etc. However, the rule kicks in once she starts getting to “my sister’s friend”, “my coworker’s niece”, “my mom’s psychiatrist”, “Dawn’s hairdresser”, etc. Those people need apostrophes to be named, so she is not allowed to talk about them.

This rule has two benefits. It limits the number of people available for the wife to gossip about, ostensibly reducing the overall time she’ll be able to spend gossiping. Also it helps limit the gossip to be about people that the husband is less uninterested in.

As far as I know, I am the first person to come up with this rule. I’ve had a lot of people follow-up with praise for this rule whenever I post it. They will write, “Wow, that’s a really good rule.” I’ve even had women say they would respect men who instituted it. It seems that a lot of people like rule.

The Apostrophe Rule is slightly related to an observation I made about urban legends, which I’ll call the Apostrophe Theorem even though it isn’t a theorem and isn’t even always true, for that matter. It’s just cool to call things theorems. It goes like this:

Whenever someone claims a dubious, urban-legend type story really happened to someone they need an apostrophe to name, it isn’t true.

Point is, stuff you hear from the grapevine, even short grapevines, isn’t trustworthy, which is why gossip about your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate is so inane. What’s the point of listening to all that when it’s probably not even true? Some people have an instinctual filter to that causes untrustworthy information to bore us; others don’t. That’s why we need the Apostrophe Rule.

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