Seeing as Jonathan Peace mentioned the other day that actually, some pointers on apostrophes might be useful, here are some.
I’ve trained around ten journalists and edited the work of a lot more. I’ve seen job applications from a fair few others besides. It’s amazing how few people can’t use apostrophes properly. Of course, if you’re one of those people who can, you’ll probably find this all immensely patronising. Also, I’ve written this so a non-native English speaker might make use of it. I mean no offence to natural English users with impeccable grammar. I’m just trying to do something useful. If you find it so, then marvellous.
There are only two categories of usage for apostrophes in English. To denote possession (it’s part of our vestigial genitive case, if you’re a grammar bore) and to indicate missing letters in the case of a contraction. Yeah, most people know that. The difficulty comes in the finer detail, and the finer the detail becomes, the closer to style it gets and the further away from hard grammatical rules.
In singular examples, ie, when there’s one thing that owns something (or things) you add an apostrophe followed by an “s”.
The dog’s hat.
There are two possible exceptions to the possessive apostrophe s. It is common (though not a rule) stylistically to omit an apostrophe in a name, especially street names, or corporate brands.
Waterstones (which has just dropped its apostrophe).
The second exception is with names that end in an s, like Charles. This is where we get into style rather than hard and fast rules.
Some institutions use “Charles'” and some “Charles’s”. There is a rule of thumb that says if it is hard to say with an extra s on the end, like Euripides, use the apostrophe without the s, otherwise do. But most places that set stock on these things – newspapers or publishers – plump for one or the other.
Its, or it’s?
There’s a slight difficulty with “its“, and this is the one you see written incorrectly the most often. Everybody from large supermarket chains to government organisations screws this one up.
If you’re using “its” to denote possession, as in:
You never, ever put an apostrophe after it to denote “it” owning something. This is to distinguish it from “it’s”, which is a contraction of “it is”.
This is a bit easier. If there are lots of things owning something (or somethings), you use an s, followed by an apostrophe.
The monkeys’ bananas.
The doctors’ surgery.
The aliens’ spaceships.
Let’s take our monkey example:
The monkey’s bananas – One monkey, lots of bananas.
The monkeys’ bananas – Lots of monkeys, lots of bananas
The monkeys’ banana – Lots of monkeys, one banana. (Poor monkeys).
Naturally, there is an exception here too. This applies to irregular plurals, like men, children, oxen etc. There are only a few, but there are lots of words with “men” in as a component and children is a common word, so you’ll see this a lot. In these cases, we use apostrophe s again.
The men’s car.
The children’s toys.
Why? Because the plural isn’t a simple “s”, so we already know there is more than one. The whole reason for all this is to let a reader know how many doctors or aliens or whatever we’re talking about, even though in speech there is no way to tell beyond inference on the part of the listener. Crazy, huh?
It looks more complicated with nouns whose plurals are the same as their singular, like deer, sheep, or fish, but it’s actually quite logical.
The fish’s eggs – One fish, lots of eggs
The fishes’ eggs – Lots of fish, lots of eggs (the “e” is in there to make it easy to say, that’s all).
The deer’s antlers – One deer, one set of antlers (unless it’s a really weird deer)
The deers’ antlers – Lots of deer, lots of antlers
English is full of contractions – didn’t, can’t, nothing’s… The rule here is if you omit any letters, you run the word preceding and the word with missing letters together. You then replace the missing letters with an apostrophe.
I did not do it – I didn’t do it
I cannot do it – I can’t do it
Nothing is happening – Nothing’s happening
Guy is mad – Guy’s mad
See that last one? That’s another where confusion often arises, because it looks the same as a possessive s. Sorry about that.
There are a limited number of standard contractions, but a ton of non-standard ones. This can get tricky, even silly, when we’re dealing with certain forms of archaic or poetical English (it was quite the rage in the 18th century to drop all kinds of things out, for example), or representations of colloquial speech and dialect. It’s perfectly normal to hear an English speaker say “It’s nothing” as “‘Snothing”. To see it represented in writing as such is also normal, but well, we’re breaking the rule, and again getting closer to style rather than grammar.
There we are.