Apostrophes and apostrophe misuse

Are you apostrophobic?

The apostrophe is your friend. I know some of  you find him confusing because I’ve seen some of you hesitate, adding an apostrophe here or there when you really don’t need one. Sometimes you’re not sure if you’ve put him in the right spot. Other times you forget about your friend the apostrophe and leave him out altogether. I hope I can provide you with some ways to remember where and when you need your friend, and what he can do for your writing.

Running it all together

One of the most common uses of the apostrophe is to show that a letter or letters have been omitted.

Why do we omit letters? Consider the following sentences.

I am going to give her a doll for Christmas.

I’m going to give her a doll for Christmas.

Why do we say I’m instead of I am? Just try saying the first sentence aloud quickly several times. Did you find that I am became I’m? Sometimes when we speak, two words merge into one. It sounds rather awkward to say I am all the time, and it could single you out as a non-native speaker. Unless of course you are emphasising the word am.

You’re not a doctor are you?

Yes, I am a doctor.

He said he didn’t want me to buy her a doll, but I am going to give her a doll, for Christmas.

Many words in English are contracted when we speak.

You are, becomes you’re.

He is or has and She is or has becomes he’s and she’s.

They are becomes they’re, they have becomes they’ve.

Just a reminder here, that you’re meaning you are is different from your meaning belonging to youThey’re meaning they are is spelt differently to there meaning in that place and their, meaning belonging to them. They all sound the same, and I know it’s all a bit tricky and even unreasonable, but it is well worth learning, because if you make an error it will not be picked up by your spell check.

Other words that are often shortened, especially in conversation, are:

I will to I’ll

you will to you’ll,

he will to he’ll

they will to they’ll

it will to it’ll

Similarly

I had or I would becomes I’d

you had or would becomes you’d

He had or would becomes he’d

They had or would becomes they’d

It had or would becomes it’d.

and

I would have becomes I would’ve and so on.

But what about “it’s”?

It is and it has can be shortened to it’s, following the rule of the apostrophe replacing the omitted letter or letters.

But when we are talking about something belonging to it, it’s its!  It’s an exception to the rule so that we can tell whether we mean it is or belonging to it.

So to recap, it is or it has can be shortened to it’s. When something belongs to it, though, it’s its, no apostrophe.

Possessive

Another time that we like to see our friend the apostrophe is when we want to know who owns something. Not only do we want to know who owns it, but we want to know whether a single individual or thing owns it, or many people or things.

To whom does that hat belong?  It belongs to Jane. It is Jane’s hat.

To whom does this hat belong?  It belongs to a committee member. It is a committee member’s hat.

Plural nouns that don’t end in S follow the same rule as single nouns.

Whose toys are these? They are the children’s toys.

These socks aren’t mine. They’re men’s socks. (meaning socks for men.)

We were discussing women’s issues. (meaning issues that concern women)

Plural nouns that do end in S become possessive by adding the apostrophe after the S.

To whom do all those badges belong? They belong to the committee members. They are the committee members’ badges.

We can see that the badges belong to the committee members collectively because the apostrophe is placed after the S. If you expected another S, to show that the badges belong to the committee members, I don’t think you are at all unreasonable, but you are going to be disappointed. Can you try saying members’s? Awkward, isn’t it? That’s why we don’t put another s when we have multiple people possessing something. In written text we can see whether something belongs to one committee member or many, but with the spoken word, we will only know from the context.

The birds fly. Birds = plural. No apostrophe.

The bird’s feathers. Bird’s = belonging to, or of, one single bird.

The birds’ migration. Birds’ = belonging to, or of, more than one bird.

When the possessor has a name that ends with S, it is sometimes omitted, depending on the context. We can say Charles’ party or Charles’s party.  Who’s party is it? We would more likely answer It’s Charles’s. Both are correct, but you should be consistent.

Bear in mind that it is not only people that can be possessive. Consider the following examples:

Today’s news was all bad.

The car’s number plate was missing.

The moon’s glow lit up the water.

No Apostrophe for plurals

Plurals (more than one of anything) don’t like apostrophes. Apostrophe abuse is often seen at the greengrocers and on the chalkboard menu, as in cabbage’s or baked apple’s. If you haven’t noticed it, you might need to know that a plural is most often made by adding an s. Apples. Cabbages. Chairs. Carpets. No need for an apostrophe.

What about acronyms? Acronyms are a late addition to the English language, only appearing in any great number during the last century and becoming increasingly popular in this one, particularly in business. They are special, and a little bit unpredictable when it comes to their apostrophe friends. I am always tempted to put an apostrophe in PC’s, MG’s, ICBM’s and WC’s. That is permissible, but equally, you can shun the apostrophe in this instance. PCs MGs ICBMs and WCs just doesn’t look right to me, but if you prefer it, please go for it, because that is also correct!

Place Names and Apostrophobia

Don’t look up Apostrophobia in your dictionary – I just made that word up.

Generally speaking, the names of towns, locations, pubs and hotels, do not get an apostrophe, unless you stay at Claridge’s, shop at Macy’s, or live in Cambridge UK. Debenhams, an English department store, never gets an apostrophe. Starbucks coffee shops haven’t got one either, but McDonald’s do. (What? are they trying to keep up with Claridges?)

grammarPublic houses like The Kings Arms and the Bulls Head rarely get an apostrophe, but that could be indecision on the part of publicans as to whether they are talking singular or plural kings and butchers. Maybe they just threw up their hands and said let’s just leave out that pesky apostrophe so that people can make up their own minds about the matter, or argue the point up at the bar over a few beers. Maybe the signwriters weren’t sure of their punctuation, or if they were, perhaps they preferred to err on the side of symmetry. Curiously, Land’s End in Cornwall almost always has its apostrophe, while on the London Underground, King’s Cross and Earl’s Court have apostrophes, but Barons Court and Parsons Green don’t. 

The Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names advises against apostrophes on signs. I’ve noticed that they are not popular on Australian signs either – we have Govetts Leap and Badgerys Creek, assumably because the Committee for Geographical Names in Australasia has also advised against them. 

This kind of punctuation anarchy seems out of place in England, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that the folk of Cambridge, where the UK’s most prestigious University is located, have been adding apostrophes to their street signs with marker pens ever since their Council decided to ostracize their little friend the apostrophe. The people of Cambridge UK like their punctuation to be correct wherever it is, and perhaps even more so on public street signs.

“We rue the day we allowed ourselves to be influenced by a bureaucratic guideline, which nobody has been able to defend to us now that it has come under the spotlight.”

said Council leader Tim Bick recently. I understand that Scholars Way and Pepys Court in Cambridge have now had their rightful apostrophes restored, but I wonder whether it is now Pepys’ Court or Pepys’s Court. And is it Scholars’ Way or Scholar’s Way? They didn’t say, but I begin to see the sense in leaving those apostrophes out of place names altogether . . .

I don’t think it’s a bad thing for anyone to take free rein with apostrophes for their place names and acronyms. Everybody’s doing it, and who doesn’t like just a little bit of freedom and creativity?

But do make sure that you get your contractions and your possessive nouns correct.

Maddy is a Retirement Blogger, futurist, thrift shopper and maker of wonderful waffles. A little bit green, sometimes a little bit blue. Visit her website for seniors at http://www.maddyathome.com

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