Strunk and White: Rule 1

Using and Abusing -’s  

The first part of Strunk and White (pp. 1-14) explains the “Elementary Rules of Usage.” In this and subsequent posts, I quote the rules directly from S&W, but unless stated otherwise, the examples are my own.

Rule 1: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s” (S&W 1).

Example: The cat’s name is Mittens. (There is only one cat, and we are talking about his name, which happens to be Mittens.)

Common questions:

What do you do when the noun ends in -s or -se?

  • You still add -’s
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons is Mittens’s human.
    • Their house’s chimney is made of stone.

Its or it’s?

  • its =  the possessive (no apostrophe)
  • it’s = a contraction meaning “it is”
  •  It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas (S&W 1).

 

Abuses of -’s: Plurals and Dates

S&W, forever gentlemen, do not address the seedy underbelly of -’s usage, but the prevalence of -’s abuse on college campuses has skyrocketed since their time. Thus, the following explanation.

Abuse #1: Using -’s to make a noun plural

Example: Class

  • No: How many class’s did you skip last week? (Hmmm…English 103 perhaps?)
  • Yes: How many classes did you skip last week? (Yes, regrettably, you missed multiple classes and will now be lost when you next decide to show-up.)

People are particularly tempted to use -’s to make a noun plural when the word ends in a vowel other than -e.

Examples:

Plea

  • No:  After several unanswered plea’s for snuggles, Mittens finally gave up, but he would never forget the slight. (Maybe if Mittens hadn’t abused that apostrophe, Mrs. Mufflebuttons would have been more amenable to snuggling.)
  • Yes: After several unanswered pleas for snuggles, Mittens finally gave up, but he would never forget the slight. (Mrs. Mufflebuttons better watch her back.)

Taxi

  • No: Taxi’s aim for pedestrians. (While it is true that taxis do love to hunt, taxi’s is a singular possessive and is thus unable to do anything.)
  • Yes: Taxis aim for pedestrians. (They aim, but they usually swerve at the last minute, just to mess with you.)

Taco

  • No: Dude, it’s 3am and I could eat a 12-pack of taco’s. (Sounds like you’re missing class again.)
  • Yes: Dude, it’s 3am and I could eat a 12-pack of tacos. (Bad idea. Seriously, just go home.)

Gnu

  • No: Gnu’s are creepy. (Adding an apostrophe to make the plural won’t save you.)
  • Yes: Gnus are creepy. (Yes they are, my friend. Yes they are.)

Abuse #2: Using -’s at the end of a date

Example: There were a lot of hippies in the 60’s and 70’s.

This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. The -’s in 60’s and 70’s is attempting to indicate a plural (inclusive of the years from 1960 to 1979).
  • However, as we learned above, -’s never makes a plural!
  • To make numbers plural, simply add -s, no apostrophe: 60s and 70s.
  1. 2. Not done, yet - 60s and 70s do not refer to years, just numbers, or maybe ages. (Yes, many hippies are now in their 60s or 70s, but we are trying to talk about the 1960s and 1970s.)
  • To abbreviate years, add an apostrophe at the beginning to indicate that we are removing the 19 from 1960s and 1970s: ‘60s and ‘70s.

Our corrected sentence: There were a lot of hippies in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Well, there you have it: the good, the bad, and the ugly of -’s usage. You are free to use -’s to make a singular noun possessive or in a contraction, but never, ever to make nouns, including years, plural.

Tune in next time when S&W conquer the most infamous villain of the English language…the comma!

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