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.

Possession

Possessive singular

In singular examples, ie, when there’s one thing that owns something (or things) you add an apostrophe followed by an “s”.

Bob’s car.

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.

Hadleys Street

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:

Its hat.

Its fur.

Its house.

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”.

Possessive plural

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

Contractions

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.

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Comments
  1. Matt Keefe says:

    Apostrophes are shit, though. I have endless sympathy for people who misuse them. The two uses are actually the same thing, given that the possessive apostrophe indicates the missing e of the old genitive. If the lazy bastards hadn’t given up bothering to write that in the first place, we wouldn’t have the problem. Further, I am not sure that having contractions in written English is actually all that necessary; other aspects of literary style serve perfectly well to convey the degree of formality and, knowing that in speech “she is” normally become “she’s” most would read it that way without the literary standard needing to render it. (In this regard, the apostrophe is questionable as a device in the same way as trying to render dialects of English, or particular manners of speech, but I appreciate this is quite a large can of worms I’m opening here so I’ll lay it more or less aside here.) Either way, using the same mark or notation variously as punctuation, a grammatical indicator and, in effect, a special letter (since it can indicate the glottal stop) is bollocks and bound to lead to confusion. I think the past laziness responsible for establishing the usage should be remembered by modern day pedants intent on enforcing it.

    • guyhaley says:

      Ha! I hope none of the people who pay you to proofread see this, they may get the wrong idea about your attitude to apostrophe enforcement. Just how committed are you to your waged pedantry, Chief? That’s what I’m asking myself here.

      You are right, they are annoying, but that’s like pretty much everything else to do with the orthography of English.

      • Matt Keefe says:

        Oh, I’m not interested in making an argument for change or simplification (or disobedience) – it’s just my analysis that apostrophes were a bad idea. It’s actually for similar reasons that I have very little time for the idea of phonetic spelling in English (though not necessarily for some spelling reform, which has to happen eventually and occurs naturally in modest fashion anyway) because ultimately you can’t write a language phonetically and still represent the obvious and necessary demands of its grammar. How would we write a word like ‘fusion’, for instance? Would we replace the s with something phonetic, thereby breaking it’s obviously link with words like ‘fuse’. I think breaking the link between roots and their derivations would be very harmful for the understanding (and particularly learning) of English overall, so what would we do? Introduce a series of spelling rules about how letters like the s in fuse ‘mutate’ regularly when certain endings are added? Russian does it, and produces both phonetic and predictable spelling and retains the visibility of etymology but then you just have to learn all the spelling rules. Is that really that much easier than learning the pronunciation of words that are actually spelled fairly consistently by type?

  2. redfox4242 says:

    This reminds me of sixth grade English class. I didn’t always do my homework.

  3. Neal Asher says:

    Valid points from Matt there because the rules of grammar don’t necessarily dictate how we should use our language but are perpetually catching up with how we do use it. However, it’s best to try and stick with them to save on confusion.

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