Apostrophes: everything you ever wanted to know, just about.

Yesterday, 16 August, was International Apostrophe Day, and the cue for lots of apostrophe articles and Twitter posts.

The following quick guide to when and how to use an apostrophe was taken from an article in The Guardian by David Marsh: If you can’t use an apostrophe, you don’t know your shit.

How to use an apostrophe

To indicate missing letters
I’d [I would] rather buy my own beer if you won’t [will not] put your hand in your pocket.
Many pronouns are routinely abbreviated and need an apostrophe – it’s (it is), who’s (who is), they’re (they are), you’re (you are) and so on. The way to avoid confusing them with the apostrophe-less equivalents its, whose, their or there, and your is to do a quick check of the meaning: in the sentence “there are many people who count their blessings even when they’re poor”, “they’re” is clearly a contraction of “they are” so needs an apostrophe.

To indicate a possessive
His dad’s quirky grammar book was top of Oliver’s Christmas list.
But note that the possessive its, like other possessive pronouns such as hers, ours, yours and theirs, does not have an apostrophe: “Tesco doesn’t know its onions.” To confuse you further, one’s does (“one knows one’s onions”), but you wouldn’t use that unless you wanted to sound pompous.
The term “possessive” is misleading; “association” or “relationship” would be more helpful: David might be said to possess “David’s book”, but hardly “David’s favourite football team”, although David needs an apostrophe in both cases.
If a word ends in S, an apostrophe and second S are added to make it possessive if that is how it is pronounced: James’s book, but waiters’ tips. If a plural does not end in S, you add apostrophe+S: children’s games, people’s republic, women’s rights, etc.
Phrases such as butcher’s hook, collector’s item, cow’s milk, goat’s cheese and writer’s cramp are best treated as singular. We either don’t know or don’t care whether one cow, or many, are involved.

To indicate time or quantity
This book represents a year’s thought, squeezed into a month’s actual work.
Apostrophes are used in phrases such as two days’ time and 12 years’ jail, where the time period (two days) modifies a noun (time), but not in three weeks old or nine months pregnant, where the time period (three weeks) modifies an adjective (old). You can test this by trying the singular: one day’s time, but one month pregnant.

The Guardian article was in turn taken from David’s book For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, to be published by Guardian Faber in the autumn. One for language lovers’ Christmas lists, I reckon.

How not to use an apostrophe

Andrea Mann compiled a slide show for The Huffington Post illustrating just how badly people get their apostrophes wrong: 22 Disastrous Apostrophe Fails For International Apostrophe Day.

And here’s Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal’s take on the apostrophe in comic form (also available as a poster).

The story of the apostrophe

Lastly, if you’re looking for a more academic analysis of the apostrophe, check out The Story of the Apostrophe by Christina Cavella and Robin A. Kernodle (in pdf format), a paper which traces

the history of the apostrophe, examining the purpose(s) for which the apostrophe has been utilized in the past as well as presenting its current use. An overview of contemporary rules of usage is then included, along with specific examples of apostrophe misuse and a recommendation on how to teach apostrophe usage to non-native speakers of English. Finally, an attempt is made to predict the apostrophe’s future.

A future which, sadly, looks bleak, according to the authors:

The apostrophe’s troubled past points to a bleak future, as its functions are becoming less and less clear for many writers today. If younger generations continue to use writing as a medium for representing fleeting speech, the apostrophe might eventually be lost forever.

Have you any apostrophe stories or photos?

Other posts you might like:

Punctuation botheration (1)

Punctuation botheration (2)

Dot-dot-dot (1): how to type an ellipsis

Dot-dot-dot (2): when to type an ellipsis

By Marian Dougan

5 Responses

  1. I don’t know and I can’t really understand why some people find using the apostrophe correctly such a huge problem when in fact it is quite simple, like you very nicely summed it up here.

    My pet peeve when it comes to this issue is the use of “‘s” for plural. The worst thing is that I actually found quite a few in a book written by someone working in the translation industry, a person from whom you’d expect more, someone who talks about proofreading yet does not feel the need to use it. Wasted money, as I don’t think I can bring myself to finish the book under these circumstances.

    1. Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good. I recently got an email advertising “Villa’s for rent” in Turkey. But it wasn’t written by a translator and/or proofreader!

  2. I am actually preparing a blog post on correct grammar and I am planning to write about different situations: some where I am more inclined to be a little more forgiving and some others where I think such mistakes are unacceptable (such as the one in my previous comment).

    As for the email you received, it’s clear for me I would not buy from them. If you have a villa to rent (and I assume it is not very cheap), you can afford to pay a proofreader to check your advertising (whatever method you choose).

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