Re: Use of Apostrophe

Subject: Re: Use of Apostrophe
From: Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 2 Nov 1998 23:47:01 -0700

M S Dattareya asked:

>How do you read the following sentence:
>What's it really cost?
>Is it:
>* What is it really cost?
> This, I guess, is faulty construction.
>* What does it really cost?
> If yes, Can "What's" be used interchangeably to mean:
> What is and What does.

This is seldom explained anywhere, but in English, the words
"is", "does", and "has" can all be elided to a hard "s". In
writing, this is represented by an apostrophe followed by the

An example:

What's it really cost?

is short for:

What does it really cost?


What has it really cost?

You can't tell which meaning is intended without context, because
"cost" is the same in both present tense and past participle. In
the "does" interpretation, "cost" is in the present tense. In
the "has" interpretation, "cost" is a past participle with "has"
as an auxiliary verb. In most regions, you can only elide "has"
to 's (or "have" to 've) when "has" is an auxiliary verb, not
when it denotes possession.

Another example:

Fred's coming to dinner.

is short for:

Fred is coming to dinner.

Here there is only one possible interpretation, since neither
"does" nor "has" would make sense in this context.

Another example:

Fred's been here twice already.

is short for:

Fred has been here twice already.

Again there is only one possible interpretation, since "been" is
a past participle in need of an auxiliary verb. Only "has"
makes sense in context, not "does" or "is".

Now take a deep breath, because there's something else you should
know here. Before you go wild creating contractions, be aware
that they are all somewhat informal. Most technical writing
needs to be very formal and impersonal, even while it retains a
light and friendly tone. This is necessary to establish
credibility with a reader. In a technical manual, a reader must
see the text as the voice of the subject matter itself, seemingly
not coming through a human intermediary.

Writing informally calls everything you say into doubt. The
reader sees it as one person's opinion. Since people are
fallible, it might be wrong. So I write somewhat informally in
messages like this one, where I want people to see what I'm
saying first-hand and not take me at my word. Inducing doubt
helps induce independent thought; it spurs the reader to *not*
take you at your word. A chatty form of writing says, implicitly
in every sentence, "I'm only making this up as I go along, so
maybe you can contribute something to it yourself or correct my
errors. In any event, you'd better check it out and think it
through yourself before applying it."

But the writing in a user's manual should seem unquestionable,
comprehensive, and authoritative. And of course it should really
*be* correct, complete, and the official statement of your
organization, too.

Some people say, for this reason, that you should never use
contractions in technical writing. I personally don't go that
far. I couldn't see writing "cannot" for every "can't" and "do
not" for every "don't". Sometimes the resulting rhythm of the
sentence is just too clunky. But if the rhythm of the sentence
is fine without the contraction, as it usually is, you're better
off avoiding the contraction and spelling out all the words in

Another factor to consider is that the is/does/has contraction is
not widely known to people whose native language is not English.
(Also, many native speakers are fooled by the myths taught in
most grammar books, even while the actual rule remains encoded in
their brains.) So I'd avoid it entirely in manuals whose
audience includes people who are not facile with the untaught
subtleties of English.

Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>
Author, _Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content & Style_

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