Apostrophe atrocity

Get a group of editors in a room together and you can bet that we’ll be complaining about misplaced apostrophes before you can say ‘greengrocer’. While detailed questions of apostrophe use take pages to explain, the basic rules of apostrophe use are fairly simple:

Apostrophes are used for two things:

1. to show that a single noun owns something: Ruth’s house.

If you remember that you can always turn this around into ‘house of Ruth’, it will help with plural possessives (see below).

2. to show that some letters have been left out of a contraction:

do not = don’t                   cannot = can’t

it’s = it is               or            it has

Apostrophes are not used in plurals unless there is also possession:

1. The girls are walking their dogs. (plural ‘girls’; plural ‘dogs’; no apostrophes)

2. The girls’ dogs are barking. (the girls own the dogs)

Apostrophes are also not used in the possessive ‘its’.

1. The dog wagged its tail.

(If you would like to see the basics of apostrophe use in cartoon format, have a look at Boggleton Drive http://boggletondrive.com/2011/08/17/apostrophes/)

So, to tabulate this:

  Singular Plural
Not possessive Please send this to the student. Please send this to the students.(note, no apostrophe)
Possessive Please send this to the student’s teacher.(one teacher, one student)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the student. Please send this to the students’ teacher.(many students, one teacher)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the students.
  Please send this to the students’ teachers.(many students, many teachers)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teachers of the students.
IT’S/ITS – for a musical version of this, follow the link to the apostrophe song and forever remember “don’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ unless you mean ‘it is’”.
Contractions The dog thinks it’s great to have a tail = The dog thinks it is great to have a tail.It’s been wonderful to see you = It has been wonderful to see you.
Possessive The dog wagged its tail. (no apostrophe)

Causes of misplaced apostrophes

1. Plurals: people seem to think that you need an apostrophe for a plural. You can see from the table above that you only need this if possession is involved (and the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’ for singular and after the ‘s’ for plural). In the sentence: A picture is worth a thousand word’s, there is a misplaced apostrophe because ‘words’ is plural and has no need for an apostrophe.

2. Numbers: It did used to be the fashion to put an apostrophe between a run of numbers and a plural ‘s’, for example, the 1980’s. This is now considered incorrect, as there is no risk of misreading it without the apostrophe: 1980s.

3. Shortened forms: Again, it was the fashion to form a plural shortened form with an ’s, but that’s now considered unnecessary as there is no risk of misreading: DVDs, CDs. There are some instances where it might still be used to avoid ambiguity:

A’s are difficult to get in Year 12.

You need to watch your p’s and q’s and make sure you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

With the latter example, some style guides prefer that you italicise the p and q so that it reads like this: You need to watch your ps and qs and make sure you’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts.

However, this is more ambiguous – particularly the example of is, which is easier understood if an apostrophe is used.

Some of the confusion in these forms may arise because of the combination of contraction, which does require an apostrophe to mark the omitted letters, and a plural form, which requires no apostrophe. Words such as demos and subs are both plurals from contractions, where users perhaps want the apostrophe to mark the missing letters from demonstrations or from substitutions (or subeditors or submarines). But usual contractions don’t work with plurals anyway; they all have the pattern of omitting letters from singular words, most often ‘not’ (as in could not = couldn’t and do not = don’t), and sometimes ‘us’ (as in let us = let’s) or ‘have’ (as in could have = could’ve – note, not could of!).

4. Third person singular: as if the happy coincidence of a word ending in ‘s’ meaning a possible plural (two cats) or a possible possessive (cat’s tail) weren’t confusing enough, the regular form of third person singular verbs in English also ends with ‘s’ and does not take an apostrophe. That’s the he/she/it form. So: I eat, you eat, she eats. And because people are confused about apostrophes, they are starting to throw them in here too. The image on the home page is a good example of this: the early bird gets the right size, not get’s. It’s interesting that there are some words that can be both contractions and third person singular, such as lets/let’s. The use of lets, as in ‘He lets his children play in the park’ is not the same as ‘Let’s go and play in the park’, where let’s is a contraction for let us.

In the next post about apostrophes I’ll address some of the more specific cases that give people trouble, such as the descriptive versus possessive use (species distribution); proper names ending in ‘s’; joint ownership; inanimate objects and possession; compound titles; generic phrases; expressions of time; and examples from other languages.

Other resources

OWL at Purdue: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/

Grammar Girl: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/apostrophe-1.aspx and http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/apostrophe-plural-grammar-rules.aspx

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