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The Malta Apostrophe Protection Blog Post

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

It is unclear whether this sign wants to say that there is a single camera in use or whether the sign uses a superfluous apostrophe to imply that there are multiple cameras.

Last week, it was reported that Britain's Apostrophe Protection Society is closing down its operations, not because the fight for protection has been won but because the situation is hopeless. The society's founder, the 96-year-old former newspaper editor John Richards, has simply had enough. His flutter of the white flag came with the declaration: "We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness in modern times have won. Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language."

That is quite an indictment but not one that Malta Thesis Proofreading, Editing and Reviewing Services can take lying down. To misquote one of the great masters of the English language: "We shall fight in our theses, we shall fight in our essays, we shall fight in our e-mails. We shall never surrender."*

So what is this great fight about, you might ask. Well, the apostrophe should be used for possessive forms (Mrs Cuschieri's umbrella) and pronoun contractions (he's doing the laundry). It should not be used for plurals, ever. "The number of five-star hotel's in Malta is increasing" is clearly wrong. So is "I bought five laptop's" and "SUV's are convenient" (You would not write 'sport utility vehicle's' so why would you write SUV'S instead of the correct version, SUVs; don't let acronyms confuse you).

This mistake is so common that it even has a name: the greengrocer's apostrophe. It is called such because of the ubiquity of hand-written signs in greengrocers' shops selling banana's and aubergine's (both wrong). 'Banana's' would be correct if the sentence were "The banana's skin is yellow" (a possessive).

And if, in that last sentence, we were to use the pronoun instead of the word 'banana's', we would say "Its skin is yellow" (no apostrophe). Confusing? It shouldn't be. 'Its' in this sentence is not a contraction. It's the equivalent of 'his', 'her' and 'my'. 'It's' would be a contraction when we say something like "It's raining at the moment" (a contraction of 'it is'). 'It's' and 'its' tend to create great confusion. I have seen the two words used wrongly even in professionally published books. They are, however, easy to figure out. While writing, simply think about whether what you want to say is a possessive or a contraction. Got it? Right, let's move on.

When the name of a person who owns something happens to end with the letter 's', nothing changes. If Mrs Cuschieri from the example above were to legally change her name to Mrs Cuschieris, we would still say Mrs Cuschieris's umbrella. Apostrophes after 's's (that's the letter 's' in plural) only come after plural forms, like, for example, "the Cuschieris' house" (because it belongs to the whole family). Another example is "the giraffes' food" (many giraffes) as opposed to "the giraffe's food" (a single giraffe). So to recap: "Jesus's last supper" is good. "Jesus' last supper" is not (because Jesus is a single person not two or more). Just because a grammatical form is widely used does not make it grammatically correct.

OK, your head is probably spinning at this point but there is one other very common mistake I would like to tackle before I go: a span of years within a decade. No, last Saturday you did not go to a 1980's-themed party. You went to a 1980s-themed party. Why? Because '1980s' is not a possessive but a shortened form of 'nineteen-eighties', a plural derived from eighty. Remember: never use an apostrophe-'s' to depict plurals.

'1980s' music was awful.', however, would be a grammatically faultless sentence, even if it is likely to lead to brawls on dance-floors (not brawl's on dance-floor's).

Until the next time,

Happy writing

*It is commonly believed that Winston Churchill said "We shall fight them on the beaches". This is mistaken. Mr Churchill never actually used the word 'them'. Now you know.

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