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Every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing. Keep yourself sharp by testing your knowledge…

Correctly insert apostrophes into the following passages.

  1. BANGKOK- Nearly 16,000 of the world’s plant and animal species face extinction largely because of humans destructive behaviour, a major new environmental report said. The World Conservation Union’s red list of threatened species said over-exploitation, climate change and habitat destruction are to blame for the crisis.
  1. Be it a young mother wanting to learn some no-fuss recipes or an entrepreneur wishing to open his own restaurant, our job of improving our students cooking skills is certainly made easier if students practise at home between classes.
  1. Mr Smith was already ten minutes late for his class, and the students were getting rowdy. Not one to disappoint, the student teacher stepped into the teachers shoes beautifully.

~

Ah, apostrophes: many are scared of them, not realising that learning the few simple rules associated with them will give those with Apostrophe Anxiety all the confidence they need to use, fearlessly, the most notorious of punctuation markings. Every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing. Keep yourself sharp by testing your knowledge… People with this common affliction, which could be attributed to ignorance in today’s teachers or to an ineffective English curriculum, often have such intense fear that they are incapable of using an apostrophe… ever. They avoid them like the plague, because they don’t know what to do with those little ink-flicks.

In a separate category are those users of English who believe they are entirely competent with apostrophes, and throw them in anywhere and everywhere. Those—sometimes rather amusing—cases are for another time, though.

Those of you not suffering from Apostrophe Anxiety would not have found this test difficult. If you are one who did find it challenging, though, remember: I’m here to help, and you can get through this.

To begin with, it is important to know that apostrophes are ONLY used to indicate possession or the omission of letters. Examples of the latter are she’s (where the apostrophe signals the omission of the ‘i’ in ‘she is’) and hasn’t (the apostrophe showing the omission of the ‘o’ in ‘has not’).

The apostrophes missing in the three passages above are indicative of possession. Passage 1 already has two apostrophes in it, which are correct. The missing punctuation mark is in the word humans. The ‘destructive behaviour’ belongs to ‘humans’, and ‘humans’ therefore requires an apostrophe.

If it were only one human behaving destructively, then it would be (a) human’s destructive behaviour. However, more than one human is responsible. The ‘s’ that makes the plural form of ‘human’ (and many other nouns) causes much confusion and many mistakes; it is largely responsible for the trepidation A.A. sufferers feel. Logically, though, there is only one place the apostrophe can go, for it cannot go in the same place as in the singular form (human’s).

The positioning of the missing apostrophe in Passage 2 relies upon the same logic. The ‘cooking skills’ belong to ‘our students’. Obviously, there is more than one student, so our student’s cooking skills is incorrect, because ‘students’ has then been punctuated as a singular. The apostrophe can under no circumstances be omitted, because it indicates possession—of ‘cooking skills’, and we certainly don’t want to rob these diligent students of their culinary knowledge. Therefore, the apostrophe is inserted into the only place left: after the ‘s’.

In the final passage, it is the teacher, the tardy Mr Smith, who possesses the ‘shoes’ (with ‘beautifully’ being an adverb). Unless Mr Smith shares his shoes with his collegues, the shoes belong to one teacher only, and ‘teachers’ in punctuated in singular form. If it were more than one teacher—if, for example, the teachers signed up for the cooking class because they, too, wanted to learn some no-fuss recipes—then ‘teachers’ (the plural) would be punctuated just as ‘students’ was in Passage 2.

With correct apostrophes, the passages would read:

  1. BANGKOK- Nearly 16,000 of the world’s plant and animal species face extinction largely because of humans’ destructive behaviour, a major new environmental report said. The World Conservation Union’s red list of threatened species said over-exploitation, climate change and habitat destruction are to blame for the crisis.
  1. Be it a young mother wanting to learn some no-fuss recipes or an entrepreneur wishing to open his own restaurant, our job of improving our students’ cooking skills is certainly made easier if students practise at home between classes.
  1. Mr Smith was already ten minutes late for his class, and the students were getting rowdy. Not one to disappoint, the student teacher stepped into the teacher’s shoes beautifully.

 

Source of featured passages: various commercial and non-commercial publications.

The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 370 (December 2010–February 2011).

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