Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)
Part I. Punctuation Basics
Chapter 1. Throwdown: Possessives vs. Contractions
Just so we’re all on the same page, I’m going to define possessives and contractions.
A possessive indicates that the object in question belongs to someone (or a group of someones). They possess it. A possessive is normally created by adding an apostrophe (’)or an apostrophe plus s (’s) to the end of a word.
A contraction is a convention of the English language where we smash two words together to make them quicker and easier to say. We contract their length. We indicate that two words have been merged in this way by using an apostrophe.
Because both possessives and contractions use apostrophes, in some situations they can be easy to confuse.
I’m going to give you the basic rules for forming possessives first, and then I’ll talk about the main causes of confusion.
RULES FOR FORMING A POSSESSIVE
If the word is singular, always add ‘s. It doesn’t matter what letter ends the word.
Paris’s finest wine shop
But then, why are we sometimes told to leave off the s in words that already end in s, x, or z?
If it would sound awkward to have the additional s sound, it’s acceptable to omit the s. However, it’s always correct to include it, so when in doubt, include the s.
Mrs. Williams’s dog escaped.
Mrs. Williams’ dog escaped.
And for a few words, common usage has created anomalies.
For goodness’ sake
If you think something is the exception to the rule, the easiest way to check is to look it up in the dictionary.
If the word is plural and already ends in s, just add an apostrophe.
Both dogs’ noses were wet.
The Joneses’ apartment was barely big enough for two.
If the word is plural and doesn’t end in an s, add the apostrophe plus an s.
The children’s desks needed to be replaced before school could continue.
The women’s fashion show was canceled because of the weather.
WHERE THE PROBLEMS START
The exception to the rule of adding an apostrophe (with or without an s) to form a possessive is with personal pronouns.
The most problematic combinations are your/you’re, its/it’s, and their/they’re/there.
In all these cases, if it includes an apostrophe, it’s a contraction of two words. The apostrophe shows you that two words have been joined. Think of it like the grammatical version of a wedding ring.
You’re = you are
You’re giving me a headache with all this grammar talk.
They’re = they are
They’re going to buy a new dictionary.
It’s = it is/it has
It’s stupid that the English language uses apostrophes for both possessives and contractions.
Even though other possessives are formed using an apostrophe, possessives involving you, they, and it aren’t, because if they were, there would be no way to distinguish them from contractions involving the same words.
The possessives of these words form in their own rebellious way.
You’re = you + are
Your = possessive, as in “I love your book.”
They’re = they + are
Their = possessive, as in “Their house is blue.”
And for fun, English also gives us…
There = a place (“I’ve been there”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m jumping off that cliff.”)
It’s = it + is
Its = possessive
Here’s a little trick for keeping these straight. (If memory tricks don’t work for you, don’t worry, but I like to give them for the people who do find that they help.)
Think of the apostrophe in contractions as a wedding ring between two words when it comes to personal pronouns. In a marriage, two persons become “one,” and they should never consider each other a possession.