Everybody likes a system. The smooth operation of our civilisation depends on following rules. Sure, some are ill-designed, some are just stupid and others are unfair. We all flout some rules, sometimes with excellent reasons but, in the main, they stand between us and that other law—the jungle.
I was reminded of this today. Volunteering at my daughter’s school at the ‘kiss and drop’, resplendent in my high-viz vest, I set up traffic cones, directed incoming cars into the designated lane, opened doors, helped the kids with their bags and waved the driver on. If more than four cars lined up, we directed those at the end to drive round the block. Although they had to join a queue and might have to go round again, instead of cutting in further down, the parents loved it. They saw a system that worked for everybody. Everybody played, everybody understood the rules.
And, recently, stuck on one side of the barricades at the Boston Marathon, our guesthouse on the other side, the air was cooling faster than the runners. The road was long. How would we get across? Dark mutterings were heard in the crowd. But there was a system! We found a crossing point where security checked the oncoming ‘traffic’ then waved us over in groups of two or three. And the crowd of tired onlookers, thinking about home and dinner, formed a line. The mood lifted. We danced across, happy to be a part of the whole shebang.
Grammar is a set of rules which lets us discern meaning.
Take apostrophes. They only ever show ownership or indicate a contraction.
If the owner is singular, (the club), the apostrophe come before the s: the club’s soccer ball. If the owner is plural (the girls), the apostrophe comes after the s: the girls’ soccer ball.
With the exception of ‘its’. We don’t use an apostrophe when we show ownership by the pronoun ‘it’: the club won the game playing with its best team.
This distinguishes it from the contraction of ‘it is’ (it’s going to be a hot day). In a contraction, you put the apostrophe exactly where the missing letters belong: where they’d (they would) be, if you’d (you had) written the word in full.
Never use them in plurals and you can skip them when talking about a number of years (1970s). The jury’s out on that one but I think it looks better without it.
Rules helped us cross the marathon’s barricades and will help you sort your soccer balls.