Sometimes I just think ‘get rid of it’. It’s a pain. Even those of us who work with words occasionally sit scratching our heads at where the damn thing should go.
But, despite our agony, most of the time the apostrophe is a much maligned punctuation mark. It does its job wonderfully well – if you can get your head around it.
So, in the spirit of friendship for everyone who hates the little thing, here’s the lowdown to help you polish your prose.
Contractions (shortened phrases)
One of the most common ways to use the apostrophe is in shortened phrases – where letters have been omitted in a group of words. The apostrophe basically takes the place of the missing letters.
So, if there’s a letter missing that’s where you stick the apostrophe:
’d instead of would or had – he’d, she’d we’d
’ve instead of have – they’ve, we’ve
’t instead of not – can’t, aren’t
’ll instead of will or shall – we’ll, he’ll, she’ll
’s instead of is – that’s, what’s, it’s, who’s
’re instead of are – we’re
won’t – this stands for will not (I know, it’s weird)
It can also be used for shortening years. But beware!
When you write out a year like this, simply hitting the apostrophe/single quote key on your keyboard just won’t cut it. The computer brain thinks you’re starting a quote, so you get an opening quote mark instead of an apostrophe. The quickest way to remedy this is to hit the quote key twice and delete the first one – that way you have a nice, correct punctuation mark facing the right way.
Summer of ’69
We went to Madrid in ’86
Exceptions – clipped words
Again, beware! Not all contractions need an apostrophe. If a contraction is formed from a word that has been clipped and has made it into everyday use (basically, because us humans are lazy), you don’t use an apostrophe.
This isn’t where one or two letters have been cut out, but where a whole part of the word has been consigned to the bin.
bus instead of omnibus
phone instead of telephone
gym instead of gymnasium
fridge instead of refrigerator
Way back in time we used an apostrophe for these, but that was when the ’bus was new and exciting, and the writer was being oh, so hip by nonchalantly cutting out part of the word. These days it will only make you look like an old fuddy-duddy.
This is a nightmare. The thing that trips people up. The monster that refuses to die.
’s shows that something belongs to someone or something:
Heidi’s fashion sense
a week’s work
But beware! There is no apostrophe in the possessives its, yours, hers, ours, or theirs.
What if the word already ends in an s? Well, there are two ways to go:
More common these days is – if you say it, you spell it:
Tom Jones’s dog
But the other, more old-fashioned, way is to just have the apostrophe and leave out the s. This is also preferable if the word ends in an ‘ez’ sound. (This can be down to personal preference, and honestly it’s perfectly fine to drop that second s it if it’s easier.)
Tom Jones’ dog
Moses’ sense of humour
And for plural nouns and names ending in s, if you don’t pronounce it, don’t use it.
My sisters’ champagne
three weeks’ time
Getting confused yet?
Possessives still confuse a lot of people. It can be something you have to think carefully about, but it’s usually fairly simple. Think about if the noun is singular or plural and that will tell you where to put the punctuation mark:
the artist’s work = the work belonging to the artist (singular)
the artists’ work = the work belonging to the artists (plural)
my brother’s champagne = the champagne belonging to my brother (singular)
my brothers’ champagne = the champagne belonging to my brothers (plural)
Its or it’s / whose or who’s
This causes so much confusion!
When you are using the apostrophe to show a letter is missing you use it’s
it’s = it has or it is
it’s not funny
but that’s the only time the apostrophe is used.
For possessives, if something belongs to someone or something, there is no apostrophe as no letters are missing, so it would be:
its huge tentacles
its sharp teeth
whose eyes are those?
This one is the worst. The one that drives you mad when you spot it on a sign. The one that spawned the so-called grocer’s apostrophe.
People – we don’t use an apostrophe for plurals unless the word would be unreadable without it.
So we say:
mind your p’s and q’s
dot the i’s and cross the t’s
but for everyday plurals, leave those damn apostrophes out:
a kilo of toffees – not a kilo of toffee’s
the best whiskies in the area – not the best whisky’s in the area
free range eggs – not free range egg’s
So there you go, a short guide to the apostrophe. There’s no other punctuation mark that seems to annoy and confuse so many people. Hopefully now you can go forth and use the mark with wild abandon – but please, be kind to those who still get it wrong. Just quietly point them towards a friendly guide such as this and don’t call them out in public, no one likes a smart-arse.