An apostrophe catastrophe?

Apostrophe’s can be confusing. See? Apostrophes can be confusing. That’s better. Apostrophes in English have several uses:

  • to indicate possession
  • to form plurals
  • to indicate a missing letter or number.

While this seems quite straightforward, many people for whom English is their first language still find it difficult to use apostrophes correctly. Perhaps the most common misuse (and the one that rankles with grammar pedants everywhere) is the so-called ‘grocer’s apostrophe’. Watch out for it next time you visit a fruit and vegetable shop. It looks like this:

  • potatoe’s
  • carrot’s
  • bag of orange’s.

In these cases, the apostrophe has been used incorrectly to denote plural forms of the words potato, carrot and orange. The confusion arises because these words (like many in English) take an ‘s’ or ‘es’ on the end to form a plural. Potato becomes potatoes, carrot becomes carrots and orange becomes oranges. The writers of such signs have confused the plural-forming ‘s’ with the ‘s’ that often follows apostrophes indicating possession. These possessive forms look like this:

  • The cat’s tail looked like a feather duster.
  • The editor’s pencil needed sharpening.

In these sentences, the cat and the editor are singular nouns, and take an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to indicate possession of the tail and pencil, respectively. With plural nouns already ending in ‘s’, only the possessive apostrophe is added:

  • The cats’ tails were all held high.
  • All the students’ work was of a consistently high quality.

For plural nouns not ending in ‘s’, use the possessive apostrophe with an ‘s’:

  • The mice’s nest was made of shredded paper.
  • The children’s book section was well stocked.

For nouns ending in ‘s’, where the owner is singular, the possessive apostrophe is used with an ‘s’:

  • Melanie Jones’s thesis was highly regarded.
  • Lucas’s skateboard was bright green.

An exception to this rule is with biblical or classical names ending in ‘s’. In these cases, do not add an extra ‘s’:

  • Jesus’ words are inspiring to many.
  • The goddess Artemis’ favourite animal was the deer.
  • For plural nouns ending in ‘s’ or ‘es’, indicate possession with an apostrophe:
  • The Joneses’ always have the latest of everything.
  • My parents’ house is in the country.

Another common misuse is when contractions are confused with possessive adjectives and pronouns ending in ‘s’. ‘It is’ can be contracted to ‘It’s’; here the apostrophe indicates the missing letter ‘i’:

  • It’s a rainy day.
  • It’s a very friendly café.

Possessive adjectives and pronouns ending in ‘s’ do not need an apostrophe, as they already indicate possession in their form:

  • My computer won’t work; its hard drive has crashed.
  • That piece of cake is all yours if you want it!

There are many contractions in English, where an apostrophe is used to indicate a missing letter:

  • ‘I had’ becomes ‘I’d
  • ‘you are’ becomes ‘you’re
  • ‘should have’ becomes ‘should’ve’ (note: never use ‘should of’ as this is incorrect).

Apostrophes can be used to indicate other missing letters in a word, or numbers:

  • I will meet you at five o’clock, where ‘o’clock’ means ‘of the clock’.
  • He was born in the ‘60s, where ‘60s is a contraction of 1960s (note: there is no apostrophe added before the ‘s’ in these cases).

Sometimes an apostrophe with an ‘s’ can be used to indicate the plural form of a letter, number, symbol or word that cannot otherwise be made plural:

  • I will cross my t’s and dot my i’s.
  • Polite people mind their p’s and q’s.

Another common confusion occurs with nouns that are not possessive, but adjectival. An adjectival noun describes another noun. When these adjectival nouns are plural, ending in ‘s’ or ‘es’, although they look like possessive forms, they are not:

  • travellers cheques (cheques for travellers, not cheques of travellers)
  • visitors guide (guide for visitors).

Some proper nouns—place names or brand names—no longer use an apostrophe, even though they indicate a kind of possession. Other names still retain the apostrophe:

  • Wilsons Promontory
  • Mc Donald’s.

The apostrophe is a very small punctuation mark, but one that instigates huge debate as a sign that modern English usage has eroded. As its misuse can frustrate many people, attending to your apostrophes is one way of ensuring your written English is well received by your tutors, lecturers and supervisors.

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