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May 16th, 2008

Apostrophe quiz answered and explained

by Barbara Wallraff

Two weeks ago, Word Court gave a contractions and apostrophes quiz. I asked for the first letters of the sentences in the list that follows that have neither more nor fewer apostrophes than they should.

The correct answer is “PERFECT.” Those of you who told me the answer is “WRONG” had the right idea but got it backwards: those are the first letters of the incorrectly punctuated sentences.

Readers who sent me the correct answer were entered into a random drawing to win an autographed copy of my book "Word Court." The winner was Robert E. Brown, of Schenectady, N.Y. Congrats to to you, Robert, and to everyone else who got a perfect score.

Here's the quiz, annotated with explanations:

Please, let’s try to make sure it’s right – whatever it is – before we share it with everyone else.
“Let’s” is a contraction of “let us,” and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” – so this sentence is correctly punctuated.

Whose responsible, do you suppose, for the trouble so many people have with writing?
“Whose” ought to be written “Who’s,” meaning “who is” – so this sentence is incorrect.

Easy mistakes to make are usually easy ones to correct.
No contractions here, hence no apostrophes.

Realistically, everyone let’s a few mistakes slip by – but the fewer the better!
“Let’s” should be “lets”: “I let,” “you let,” “everyone lets.”

Random placement of apostrophes is so silly – if people don’t know where they belong, why do they bother putting them in?
“Don’t” is the only contraction in this sentence – so the sentence is correctly punctuated.

On the other hand, its also silly to leave out all the apostrophe’s because your not sure where they go.
“Its” should be “it’s,” because it is a contraction of “it is.” “Apostrophe’s” should be “apostrophes,” because it’s a simple plural. And “your” should be “you’re,” because it is a contraction of “you are.” This sentence is a mess!

Foolish ideas aren’t necessarily expressed in misspelled and badly punctuated English, but wherever you see lots of careless mistakes, you’re being given a hint that the writer may not have been paying attention.
“Aren’t” is “are not,” and “you’re” is “you are” – so this sentence is correctly punctuated.

Errors also drag readers’ minds away from whatever the writer is trying to say.
Of course, an apostrophe can also indicate a possessive, in this case a plural possessive: “readers’ minds” means “the minds of readers.” The sentence is correctly punctuated. If this explanation makes you wonder why “its” is a possessive without an apostrophe, that’s a good question. The answer is that possessive pronouns, unlike possessive nouns, don’t use apostrophes: “My,” “your,” “his,” “her,” “our,” and “their” don’t have apostrophes, and “its” doesn’t either when it is being used in a comparable way.

Now its possible that your starting to get confused.
“Its” here means “it is,” so it should have an apostrophe. “Your” means “you are,” so it too should have an apostrophe.

Certainly, seeing lots of mistakes all together can get a person muddled about what’s right and what’s wrong.
Both “what’s” mean “what is,” so the sentence is correctly punctuated.

The simple way to tell whether a particular “its” is a contraction, needing an apostrophe, is to ask yourself whether you could write “it is” instead.
In this sentence, the “its” could go either way – with an apostrophe or without – because it isn’t really a contraction or a possessive but just an example. If you call it correct the way it is – and it’s not incorrect – then the first letters of the correct sentences spell “PERFECT” and the first letters of the incorrect sentences will spell “WRONG.” That was meant to be a hint that you might want to call the sentence correct.

Good English – like good anything else – is made from good-quality material’s.
“Material’s”??? Surely if you’ve gotten this far, you realize that this is just a regular old plural, so it’s incorrectly punctuated.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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