A Complete and Utter Apostrophe

That little  chap there is by far and away the punctuation mark that causes people the most consternation, for a variety of reasons. Some hate it because they have no idea what to do with it, and others hate it because those first people have no idea what to do with it, and it drives them crazy to see it misused or not used at all. Before getting into why people have difficulties with it, and why that infuriates others, let’s look at the basic rules of using the apostrophe. It has three basic functions:

  1. Demonstrating Possession

This is probably the most common use, and is pretty straightforward. It’s very common for non-native speakers, especially if they speak Romance languages, to say something like:

Yesterday I took the car of my father to the house of my friend.

It’s technically grammatically possible, but very awkward and old-fashioned compared to:

Yesterday I took my father’s car to my friend’s house.

Things can get a little more complex when we deal with plurals. My father’s car is ok, but what if the car belongs to both my parents?

Some people might write my parent’s car, but that would mean it only belongs to one of them. If you’re not sure how to use an apostrophe with plurals, a good rule to follow is that the apostrophe shows that the thing you’re referring to belongs to what comes before the apostrophe. In the case of my parent’s car, parent comes before the apostrophe, so we’re therefore only referring to one parent. So the apostrophe comes after parents then, but does that mean we write my parents’s car or my parents’ car?

You can do both. If you surveyed strict grammarians, I’d wager that more of them would tell you to use s’s  because it makes it clear that you’re showing the possessive form of a plural word. And while I get that, I personally prefer my parents’ car, because it just looks cleaner and less awkward. The radio is better too. I always find that the Simpsons are useful for demonstrating the use of the apostrophe with plurals:

Milhouse is Bart Simpson’s friend (singular – Milhouse certainly isn’t the friend of more than one person).

Santa’s Little Helper is the Simpsons’ dog (i.e. the dog of all the Simpsons. Also, he’s only the helper of one Santa).

Bart’s gone over to the Flandereses.

But what if a word is singular, but ends in s? What then!? Simple enough: it works the same as with a plural – just add an apostrophe, or an apostrophe with s. Like so:

My boss’ nephew got the job. / My boss’s nephew got the job.

A common use of this form is Bridget Jones’s Diary/Baby/Chronic Alcoholism.

      2. Contractions

Again, this is pretty straightforward. If we shorten two words to one, we replace the removed letter(s) with an apostrophe:

do not – don’t

will not – won’t

I am – I’m

He is – He’s

Must not – Mustn’t

You are – Your ur You’re

There are some areas of slight confusion. Some contractions are so much more commonly used than their longer forms, that people aren’t actually aware that they’re contractions, and therefore don’t use the apostrophe.

And there’s it’s. It can be slightly confusing at it can mean both it is and it has, and sometimes it’s not clear which one it is until later in the sentence:

It’s a lovely day today, isn’t it?

It’s been lovely so far today, hasn’t it?

But where it’s gets confusing is in cases like this:

Look at this image of Saturn and its moons.

The dog is walking over to that man. He must be its owner.

It might look strange not to use an apostrophe in those sentences, but it’s actually correct. If we’re talking about a possession (or part) of a thing (I know dogs are far from things, but if we don’t know its sex, we’ll refer to it as it) we don’t use an apostrophe, and this is simply to make sure it’s not confused for the much more common it is = it’s. It’s the one exception to using ‘s for possession.

     3. Made-up Sci-fi Names

Want to show that your character is completely out there and has a name so alien that it’s practically unpronounceable with out simple primate tongues? Throw an apostrophe in there!




J’onn J’onnz (yeah, completely alien that one: who’s his sidekick, D’aevihd D’aevihdson?)

Chief O’Brien (hang on…)

Ok, so that seems pretty simple. Where does the confusion come in then? I think it’s mainly due to the fact that we’re generally not taught much about using apostrophes (though this will obviously vary by country and individual school/teacher). I believe this is the main reason for the two most common mistakes with apostrophes: not using them at all, or using them with every word ending in s. For the first, either people aren’t aware of them and therefore don’t know they should be using them, or they’re aware apostrophes exist but are confused by them, so choose to ignore them. As for their overuse, I think that’s also due to confusion. People see them a lot in the vicinity of an s, and assume every s at the end of a word must come with an apostrophe. Or else they know that they don’t always have to use an apostrophe in every case, but don’t know the rules, so they just throw an apostrophe in the general vicinity of every s they see and hope it sticks.

Another area of confusion is with words ending in vowels. Take o for example. Some words ending in o add an e between the o and s, e.g. tomatoes and potatoes. Others don’t however, such as discos, photos, logos, radios. And the problem is, that looks wrong to a lot of people, because they look like the second o has the shorter o sound as in bottle, cot etc. Something in their brain therefore tells them that they need to do something to make it clear that this is a plural of a common word, and some strange new singular word, so they add an apostrophe in there to separate the o and the s. Misguided, but understandable.

And then there are the select few who thumb their noses at the conventions of punctuation, and use commas before an s (e.g. apple,s and orange,s). If you’re one of those people, I suggest trying another language, as I don’t think English is for you.

At this point I should state that I’m a staunch supporter of correct apostrophe use. I get annoyed when I see errors with apostrophes, especially when they’re on signs or slogans from major companies. I’m amazed that something can pass before the eyes of so many people before it’s released to the world and not be corrected. And I think large organisations have a greater responsibility due to the greater number of people who’ll see their errors. This is why I was annoyed when I heard a few years ago that the major UK supermarket Tesco was removing apostrophes from its signs as they were too confusing. It’s really not that hard!

Now, you might say something like: So what!? Who cares about apostrophes? They’re confusing and you don’t really need to use them! And you know what? I kind of agree. In most cases of the misuse of an apostrophe, the intended meaning is still clear. If I write I have three dog’s, you’re not going to sit around waiting for the end of the sentence. You know what I mean. There’s a story that the writer Kingsley Amis was challenged by an anti-apostrophist to come up with a sentence wherein the apostrophe was crucial to understand it. He apparently responded with the following:

  • Those things over there are my husband’s. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands’. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands. (I’m married to those men over there.)

Quite droll, and he was correct, but honestly, how often is something like that going to come up in your life? The vast majority of the time, if you misuse or fail to use an apostrophe, you’ll still get your message across.

But for me, that’s not good enough. Languages give us so many tools for getting our message across. Some, like full stops (periods) are simple, blunt things which perform a basic function. Others, like apostrophes, are precise, allowing us to fine-tune a sentence to get our exact meaning across. It’s a shame to see such simple-to-use things go unused. With a little information, apostrophes are easy to use. We might get by ok without using them. Our readers may be initially confused for a moment when they see an apostrophe and expect a noun to follow; then when it doesn’t, realising that the word is a plural and not a possessive singular noun. Such nuisances might be unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but if you can eliminate them, why not? If we can communicate what we want to say immediately in clear, simple English, why not?

I know languages evolve, and become simpler in some ways, and more complex in others. But I’d really hate to see apostrophes disappear. There’s something elegant about the fact that something so small and simple, so unassuming, can create such precision of meaning.

If you were never taught much about apostrophes (though you have been now!) I sympathise. I understand how confusing they can be. But all I ask is that when you write, take a moment to think about whether you need an apostrophe, remembering our simple rules. Then your ready to start using apostrophe’s, and they’re will be nothing to stop you!

7 thoughts on “A Complete and Utter Apostrophe

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