The Grammar Geek

The Grammar Geek Tackles Apostrophes

As mystery shoppers, we need to write well. Whether we’re giving a two-sentence response to a question or writing a narrative of several paragraphs, our grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be impeccable.

But, too often we find that common errors made by those who don’t “write for pay” have crept into our own writing. Maybe because we see them so often we don’t realize they’re wrong, or maybe because we rely on auto fill and spell check. Regardless of the reason, it never hurts to be reminded of these all-too-common errors so we can avoid making them. Nobody wants to turn in a report containing easily avoided grammar mistakes!

Today the Grammar Geek tackles apostrophe abuse.

Apostrophes are used for two things: to form possessives and contractions. However, a ginormous (yes, that’s really a word, even though spell check doesn’t think so) number of people use them to form plurals. There’s only one situation in which an apostrophe is used to form a plural: when not doing so will cause confusion for the reader. The classic example: “Mind your p’s and q’s.” A more realistic one: “Here’s your list of do’s and don’t’s.” (Dos and don’ts are confusing, in this writer’s opinion!) This anomaly is probably something you’ll never use in a report, so let’s move on to the apostrophe usages you absolutely must know.

Possessives are generally made by adding “apostrophe s” to the root word. Some things you might write in a report: “The server’s attitude was condescending” or “I was satisfied with the representative’s service.” Those are singular possessive forms (one server, one representative). Most people, when they realize they need an apostrophe here, get it right. But, don’t make the mistake, as many do, of trying to make the word into an adjective (i.e., “servers attitude”).

But plural possessives seem to give people fits. If you had more than one server while dining, you’d use the plural possessive and, of course, change the rest of the sentence construction to match: “The servers’ attitudes were condescending.”

When the plural of a word ends in “s,” you (usually) simply add an apostrophe after it. There are exceptions to this, but the rule covers the majority of cases. For example, “girls’ dresses, dogs’ collars, different cell phones’ features.”

If a word’s plural doesn’t end in “s,” add “apostrophe s.” E.g., “The women’s rest room was clean, but the men’s had soil and paper debris on the floor.” As an aside, never write, “woman’s rest room,” “mens clothing department,” etc.

For both singular and plural possessives, just make sure you’re using the proper root form of the word. In most cases, forming the possessive becomes simple. Just add an apostrophe or an apostrophe plus an “s.” For example, “The strap on the babies’ (not baby’s) changing table was broken.” Or, when writing about a single store: “The store’s hours were 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.” If you’re writing about more than one store (e.g., a mall), you would write, “The stores’ hours were 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., excepting ABC Department Store, which stayed open until 10 p.m.”

Now we throw in the proverbial monkey wrench—the word “it.” The possessive form is “its.” No apostrophe. Ever. Why? Because the normal way to form a possessive would result in “it’s,” which is the contraction for “it is.” The “its vs. it’s” error seems to be—by far—the most common grammar error. But it’s really easy to avoid: Remember that “it’s” means “it is.” That’s all you need to know. If you’ve used “it’s” and aren’t sure that’s correct, read your sentence back, substituting “it is” for “it’s.” If you end up with, “The store didn’t open it is doors until 10:15 a.m.,” get rid of the apostrophe!

Contractions are the other word forms that use apostrophes. Apostrophes take the place of omitted letters, allowing two words to be made into one. Most MSCs don’t want you to use contractions in your reports, because they’re considered informal usage. Reports need to be written in formal language, but when you’re quoting someone, you’ll have to use contractions if that’s what the person said. Some MSCs may disagree, but you can always write the contraction as spoken and add [sic] after it, letting the MSC know that you know a contraction isn’t acceptable, but you’re quoting someone verbatim.

This topic is fairly self-explanatory; the most important thing to remember is to not use contractions in your own responses and narratives. Be formal!

If you don’t take anything else away from this article, remember three things:

  1. Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural!
  2. “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.”
  3. Do not use the punctuation (or lack thereof) in the shop instructions as a guide to follow in your own writing! Just this morning I read this instruction: “You are to call to verify the stores hours.” Nope. (Our grammar has to be impeccable; apparently the grammar of those writing shop guidelines and surveys doesn’t.)


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