The Adventures of Grammar Repairman!

(A light-hearted guide for the prevention of common errors in English grammar)


Part One:
Grammar Repairman Versus the Apostrophiend

Today started like a normal day in the life of Grammar Repairman.

Grammar Repairman was on his way to work.

Grammar Repairman needed coffee.

While pouring himself a fresh cup of java at the local convenience store, Grammar Repairman noticed a sign posted on the door to the stockroom at the back of the store.

The sign read:

  "Employee's Only"

Grammar Repairman wondered what could have happened to the sign-maker that would have caused him to leave the sign unfinished. He also wondered what one item in the store could be so important that it was necessary to have a sign specifically declaring it to be the property of an employee. If it was so important, shouldn't that employee have more than one of them?

Grammar Repairman pondered this thought for a moment. Then, suddenly, his blood ran cold as he realized the terrible truth.

The convenience store's coffee bar was out of coffee creamers.

Not only that, but Grammar Repairman realized the real problem with the sign, and that it belied a far more sinister plot.

"This must be the work of the Apostrophiend!", cried Grammar Repairman as he clenched his fists in anger.

"Hey! Watch where you're spilling that coffee! You're still going to have to pay for that, y'know!", cried the convenience store cashier.

Grammar Repairman looked at the crumpled cup in his hand. Then he yelled out in pain as his nervous system finally managed to get his brain's attention. Apparently the caution message printed on the styrofoam cup regarding the temperature of its contents was indeed correct.

Also, the dreaded Apostrophiend really was back to his old tricks.

Of course, the Apostrophiend wasn't born with that name. His original name was "Bananabill". The Apostrophiend had strange parents.

One day, while walking home from school, eighth-grader Bananabill was bitten by a radioactive spider. "Stupid spider!", declared Bananabill, as he slapped the spider off of his arm and squooshed it under his shoe. Nothing happened to Bananabill as a result of the spider bite, and he quickly forgot about it. It was only mentioned here in order to add reader interest and suspense to this otherwise dull story.

Then, during his fifth year as a college freshman, something more important and interesting happened. No, not that. No, it wasn't that either. This is a family web site. What happened was that Bananabill was bitten by a radioactive punctuation mark.

Unlike the earlier incident with the spider, this event caused a definite and permanent change in Bananabill's body, mind, hairstyle, and name. It also got rid of that annoying psoriasis on his arms.

At first, Bananabill merely started to become more protective of apostrophes. He would smile and tip his hat to them as he passed them by on the street. He volunteered at the local apostrophe shelter. He helped little old apostrophes cross the street. The apostrophes loved and respected him, and he felt good about being able to help.

Then, one day, things started getting darker in Bananabill's life. Bananabill switched on the room lights, however, and remedied that problem. However, his affection for apostrophes was quickly becoming something of a mania. He felt there just weren't enough jobs for them. He wanted apostrophes to thrive. Perhaps, given enough time, he could overrun the English language with excess apostrophes! Yes! In his newly-declared identity as the Apostrophiend, he could take over the world! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

From that day forward, the Apostrophiend made it his job to trick innocent people into using apostrophes improperly, causing them to unknowingly put apostrophes in words where they don't belong.

Remember-- the Apostrophiend can't affect you if you already know the rules! Fortunately, the rules are quite simple.

Each of the following sections illustrates a simple concept in English grammar.

Depending on his schedule, Grammar Repairman may also tackle various non-apostrophe-related topics of basic English grammar, such as:

...but probably won't be covering general mechanics for a while, such as:

It's Very Simple:

[It's and Its: Our Misunderstood Friends]

"It's" is perhaps the most frequently (and annoyingly) misused word in the English language. Apparently, there are many people out there who have somehow never managed to learn the difference between the word "its" and the word "it's". If you are one of them, you may take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

This doesn't excuse it from being annoying however.

"It's"? "Its"? It's very simple:

>> The word "it's" is a contraction for "it is".
(or, sometimes, "it has")

   It's time to make the donuts.

Like most contractions in English, "it's" is written with an apostrophe. [The apostrophe usually stands in for the letters omitted to make the contraction.]

>> The word "its" is a possessive pronoun.

   What kind of donut is that? Its icing appears to be made from simulated imitation chocolate-style non-toxic edible food-like material.

Just as with all other possessive pronouns, "its" is not written with an apostrophe. Don't you even think about it, buster. You wouldn't write "hi's" instead of "his" would you? Hmmmm? That would be silly. You wouldn't write "m'y" instead of "my" would you? Or "he'r" instead of "her" would you? Why do you feel the need to put apostrophes where they don't belong? Just who do you think you are, Anne McCaffrey?? Just because "its" happens to end in an "s" doesn't make it any more special, okay?

So, how can you be sure you're using the correct word?

Whenever you find yourself about to write "it's" or "its", STOP! Mentally re-read your sentence with the words "it is" substituted for the word and see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, then the correct word is "it's". If it doesn't make sense, then the correct word is "its". Got it? [NOTE: If the sentence almost makes sense with "it is", then try substituting "it has" instead.]

See? It's Really That Easy!

Let's look at some examples of correct and incorrect usage:

   It's time for the Mr. Bill Show!

[It is time for the Mr. Bill Show!]
Yes, the substituted words make sense, so the word choice is correct.

   It's been a long time, Mr. Bond.

[It has been a long time, Mr. Bond.]
Yep, that's okay too. This time "it's" is being used as a contraction for "it has."

   That's what it's for.

[That's what it is for.]
Again, "it's" is A-OK!
You can even expand the other contraction in this sentence so that it becomes: "That is what it is for."

   The lion has a thorn in it's paw.

[The lion has a thorn in it is paw.]
No, the word substitution does not make sense, so the correct sentence should read:

   The lion has a thorn in its paw.

Much better. Well, the lion probably doesn't think so.

They're Their Problem:

Like "its" and "it's", this is another pair of words that are often used incorrectly. Also like "its" and "it's", one of this pair is a possessive pronoun, while the other is a contraction of two words. Unlike "its" and "it's", however, the two words have the advantage of being spelled differently, so these should be more difficult to confuse with each other.

>> The word "they're" is a contraction for "they are."

"They're here!"

>> The word "their" is a possessive pronoun.

"Their house is a very very very fine house, but ours needs a new roof."

Easy, isn't it?

If you aren't sure which word to use, just substitute "they are" and see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, then the correct word is "they're." If the word substitution does not make sense, then go with "their" instead.

NOTE: Remember that "their" is spelled e-before-i, rather than i-before-e.

Good Apostrophes Gone Bad:

After a short while, the Apostrophiend teamed up with another grammar arch-villain, the Repossessive! Both villains are out to trick otherwise innocent people into peppering their writing with unnecessary apostrophes, so be wary.

[Be sure to tune in next time, when the Apostrophiend and the Repossessive join forces with Anne McCaffrey as they continue their diabolical plot! Don't! Miss it if you can!]

No matter who teams up with the Apostrophiend, though, they can all be easily defeated if you know the rules! Not all apostrophes are bad.

Remember, apostrophes are used only in the following types of words:

>> Contractions


(*) This is included only because many people believe that "ain't" is not really a word. It is, however, a word that is rarely used properly. Even if you use it correctly in a sentence, you'll still sound like a stereotypical redneck country-bumpkin, so it should be avoided anyway. [Example: "I ain't going to stand here and take that!"   Another example: "I ain't a number, I'm a free man!"]

In addition to the 'official' dictionary contractions, you may also encounter various made-up contraction-like words in informal writing. F'rinstance, there's the non-word "f'rinstance." Also, there's the matter of truncated words-- gotta catch 'em all! Be particularly wary of random nouns that have been turned into contractions (and not possessives) with " 's ", such as: "Billy's drawing the comic strip again today?!" [Note that, in this case, "Billy's" is actually being used as a contraction for "Billy is," and not as a possessive indicating something that Billy owns.]

>> Nouns that have been made possessive by the addition of " 's "
(or by just an apostrophe by itself in the case of plural nouns ending in "s")


>> ...and that's about all!
Those are (almost) the only places where it is correct to use an apostrophe in the English language! Think twice before you use them anywhere else, okay?

Despite the apparent belief of some people, apostrophes are NOT used in any of the following types of words:

>> Plurals

Plural nouns do not have apostrophes! Leave them alone! I don't care what letter is at the end of the word!

Examples of INCORRECT uses of apostrophes:

Now, a lot of you out there are probably puzzled or surprised by that last one. Sorry gang, but acronyms and abbreviations do not get special treatment in the world of plurals. Don't feel too bad, though. I not only make that same mistake at times, but sometimes I even deliberately use an apostrophe to help 'break up' such plurals if I think the abbreviation might be mis-read otherwise. So, use your own judgement on that one, though it's technically incorrect.

To make things more confusing, there are some partial exceptions to this rule-- for one thing, you can correctly use an apostrophe in a plural when referring to individual letters of the alphabet or numerals.


[A better way to write that last one would be: "I looked in my wallet and found 4 ones and 2 fives." ...or, perhaps, "I'd buy, but I only have fourteen dollars. Could you loan me a few bucks until next week? I swear I'll pay you right back..." ]

There is also an exception for words-used-as-words, such as in the following clumsy example:

"Today's secret word is "door," so I'm sure I'll hear a lot of door's today."

In this case, I'm using the word "door" merely as the word itself, and not as a way to communicate the concept known as a door. Note that this sentence also contains two contractions using apostrophes, plus one noun made possessive with " 's ".

>> Possessive pronouns

Repeat after me:

  "Pronouns never have apostrophes."
  "Pronouns never have apostrophes."
  "Pronouns never have apostrophes."

I don't care what kind of pronoun it is, even if it's a possessive pronoun like "my" or "her" or "hers" or "his" or "ours". There are no apostrophes in any of those words. Don't even think about putting apostrophes there. Just step away from the pen/pencil/keyboard and walk away slowly. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

A possessive pronoun indicates possession all by itself without the "help" of an apostrophe. In fact, an apostrophe would change the meaning of the word.

For example:

>> Any other word that happens to end in "s"

Why do people do that anyway? There is nothing special about the letter "s" that somehow makes it require apostrophes to set it apart from the other letters of the alphabet.

A year or two ago, I was in a restaurant that had a nice new neon sign formed with the following words in bright pink flowing script:

[This *sign* say's it all...]
"Our Name Say's It All!"

So, the next time you spend several hundred dollars on a big unchangeable fixture, be sure to proofread it first!

NOTE: Appropriately enough, the sign appears in a single location of a franchise restaurant whose hyphenated name is made up of an incorrectly used word (involving a pun) followed by an intentionally misspelled word. The meaning of the name is apparently supposed to suggest a positive value judgement regarding the quality of the restaurant's product. So, I suppose it could be argued that their name (and this sign) really did say it all. Too bad the sign wasn't made right...

Tune in next time, when we hear Anne McCaffrey say:

"Gr'mm'rm'n! At l'st we m't. H'w d're y'u ins'lt my use of ap'str'ph's!"
"Ap'str'ph's m'ke any ch'r'ct'r n'me s'nd ex't'c and oth'rw'rldly!"
"Also, th's way I d'n't h've to w'rry ab't ev'n m'k'ng the n'm's pr'n'nc'ble!"

Last updated 07/19/2005

All information is provided on an 'as-is' basis; the author of this site is not liable for damages of any sort (financial, physical, or otherwise) which might arise from the use (or misuse) of information on this site.

Unless otherwise indicated, all contents (including images) Copyright © 2000-2003 by Martin (Marty) Kuhn /

[...we now rejoin our conversation already in progress...]

It's a good thing you weren't around in the days of hand-set type.

"Why is th't?"

Your books would have taxed the limits of the sorting drawer at any printing shop! The publisher would probably have to borrow apostrophes from printers all over the country just to publish one of your books. At least they wouldn't have to worry about running out of vowels!

"O''''h! Why y'u! I sh'll h've to s'c my dr'g'ns on y'u! T'ste Thr''d, Gr'mm'rm'n!!"