The Apostrophe: Overworked, Underpaid (and How to Use it Correctly)

The apostrophe is probably the most abused and misunderstood punctuation mark, and yet it only has three uses—to show contractions (replaces part of a word, a placeholder), plurals (minimal use) and possessives.

So why is it so difficult for sign writers, publishers, companies (not company’s) and marketing folk to get it right? The misuse and abuse of the apostrophe has led to some hilarious signs, and there are several websites dedicated to pointing and laughing at these silly mistakes. Have a look at Apostrophe Abuse and Apostrophe Catastrophes.

There are a few uses that differ between writers, publishers and even countries, and if you are in the writing game then it is best to check with your editor or publisher about the correct use of the apostrophe.

So let’s have a look at the proper uses of the apostrophe.

Contractions (replaces part of a word, a placeholder)

She’s in the library. She is in the library.

That’s the third time he’s been late. That is the third time he has been late.

I’m coming tomorrow. I am coming tomorrow.

It’s very important to brush your teeth. It is very important to brush your teeth.

Note: Don’t confuse “it’s” (contraction) with “its” (possessive) – It’s (it is) often said that every dog has its (possessive) day.

Possessive

A. Singular noun -’s

The woman’s hat. The hat that belongs to the woman.

That is Harry’s book case. The book case which belongs to Harry.

Please note that “bookcase” is an open cupboard with shelves where books are kept; “book case” is a bag which contains books to be transported.

B. Plural nouns -s’s or -s’ or -es’

The judges’ opinions. Opinions of many judges (note the plural of “opinion”)

The girls’ varied ideas. Many girls have many ideas (note the plural of “idea”)

The Jones’ new house. The house which belongs to the Jones family.

BUT, if the noun is already plural, it gets -’s , i.e. The women’s hats; The people’s houses.

C. Nouns ending in -s, -x, -z, -nce, -ese, etc.

Keats’ cottage. OR Keats’s cottage. The cottage which belonged to Keats (the poet).

Max’s study. The study belonging to Max.

Because B. and C. have so many variations, it’s best to use your ear or use a good dictionary if you’re unsure.

D. Hyphenated words

Mother-in-law’s. Add the -’s only to the last word in the series

Brothers-in-law’s. Plural compound noun – first plural, then -’s

E. Two or more people possessing something

Joel and David’s idea. One idea belonging to both Joel and David.

Joel’s and David’s ideas. They each have an idea.

Plurals

Now it gets a bit trickier. You will have been told never to use an apostrophe to pluralise a word and that is absolutely correct, however, the following will show some exceptions to that rule:

A. Letters

Mind your p’s and q’s. Mind your manners; be on your best behaviour.

How many e’s are in Mindee?

Note: Because there might be confusion between plurals and possessive, it would be better to rewrite the above:

Mind your Ps and Qs.   How many Es are there in Mindee?

B. Numbers and years

There are three 5’s in 7953525. OR There are three 5s in 7953525

OK – In the 1990’s    Better – In the 1990s.

NO! The ‘90’s   YES! The ‘90s. OR even better – The 1990s.

C. Symbols

There were $’s in his eyes. There were dollar ($) signs in his eyes.

Note: The apostrophe is falling away in Numbers (B.) and Symbols (C.), so it’s no longer strictly necessary to use them any longer.

Omissions (placeholders)

A. Years

I was born in ’63. I was born in 1963.

NO! Shakespeare was born in ’64. Shakespeare was born in 1564, not 1964.

Note: Use the apostrophe only when the year in question falls within the last hundred years, otherwise write the year out in full.

B. Names

Occasionally one will see an apostrophe in a name, notably Celtic names, such as Scottish or Irish surnames. Here are a few for interest sake:

O’Connor

O’Hara

O’Reilly

The O shows “a descendent of…” and in modern times it has fallen away, leaving the owner with just Connor or Reilly. Some surnames can’t be modernised like that, such as O’Hara.

The Irish have these surnames – the Mac, Mc or M’ means “son of….”:

MacDoogle

McCarthy

M’Kenna

Old English names (heraldry) is complex and the above is only an illustration of how an apostrophe is used in surnames.

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