Perhaps no punctuation mark has many uses and therefore potential for misuse and abuse as the punctuation mark – as these ill-punctuated signs demonstrate.

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As Lynne Truss explains in her delightful defense of proper punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the apostrophe first made its appearance in the English language in the 16th century. Its sole purpose was to denote missing letters, a  tool Shakespeare found most useful for rendering lines such as this: “Fie on’t! O fie!” and this: “”‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”

A century later, the apostrophe was paired up with the letter s at the end of a noun to show possession. The pencil belonging to Bill could now be shortened to Bill’s pencil. All well and good. But things get complicated when the noun in question ends in s or is already plural. But that’s another blog another day. Today, I’m touching on two misuses that are most ubiquitious and most annoying to me personally.

  • Its and it’s
  • Your and you’re

I’ll admit, its and it’s can be confusing because they do not necessarily follow the rules. When its is used as a possessive, as in this sentence: The house lost its roof in the storm, it does not take an apostrophe. But when it’s is a combination or contraction of it is or it has, the apostrophe is necessary to show that some letters have been eliminated. It’s raining cats and dogs is a contraction of it is and thus requires an apostrophe. Here’s a quick and simple check is to ask yourself: Could or should this sentence read as it is or it has? If the answer is yes, the proper rendering is i-t-apostrophe-s.

Ditto with your and you’re. Your is the possessive form. Is this your sweater crumpled in the corner? If it is, you’re (you are) in big trouble. The same test applies: if you can replace your with you are you’re missing an apostrophe.

Who would think that such a simple diacritical mark could be so confusing?

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