To some, Apostrophe is an album by Frank Zappa that contains sound advice about yellow snow. To others an apostrophe is a punctuation mark with more than one possible meaning. The following article is all about this second understanding.
Apostrophe. (n.) A punctuation mark indicating possession, the omission of letters or numbers (in informal writing), or the formation of a verb from a capitalised noun.
One use of an apostrophe is to indicate that at least one letter is missing. An en rule (–) or an asterisk (*) can also be used to indicate a missing letter and an em rule (—) can be used to indicate missing letters, but when encountering them the reader thinks ‘blank’ or some equivalent. When encountering an apostrophe the reader sees a pronounceable ‘word’.
I put ‘word’ in inverted commas for two reasons. Firstly, to point out that the symbol traditionally used for a closing single quotation mark (aka closing inverted comma) is the same symbol as the apostrophe. Don’t confuse the two.
The second reason is that using an apostrophe in a word tends to make a temporary closed compound with the word before or after, depending on the phrase. You join two words together if they’ve a close grammatical link—such as a pronoun and a verb, or a verb and negative—and you don’t use a space between the linked words, even when the apostrophe is in the middle of one of the words. It’s up to you whether you write, for instance, ‘they haven’t been playing well’ or ‘they’ve not been playing well’.
However, when a word is missing its first and last letters or there is no close grammatical link to the words either side then the word containing the apostrophe(s) is treated normally, as found in ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ and ‘drum ‘n’ bass’, or (written carefully) ‘’tis in th’ bag’.
An apostrophe can represent different letters, even in an identically written word in the same sentence: ‘They’d [they would] have won if they’d [they had] scored more goals.’
Older styles and some poets might use an apostrophe to indicate that a word ends with a pronounced consonant (and an oblique accent over the e, ‘è’, to indicate a stressed vowel) such as belove’d and curse’d (as opposed to belovèd and cursèd). Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules recommends we are shanghaied (not shanghai’d) over this problem by simply using the suffix ‘ed’ regardless of pronunciation.
Numbers can also be written with apostrophes representing missing digits, such as omitting the millennium and century from the year: ’11 (2011). There are guidelines here too. Don’t contract years defining a period when they span the turn of a century, obviously, or you are likely to confuse the reader. Also, Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules advises to avoid the contraction when referring to a decade, preferring ‘the sixties’ and ‘the 1960s’ (not the ‘60s). However, this contracted decade style is commonly used in modern British publishing—look in a UK newspaper.
Some folk become confused by an apostrophe when the word it’s used with can have two meanings depending on whether there’s an apostrophe in its sequence of letters.
A simple test to decide whether there should be an apostrophe is to imagine the word with the missing letters in place.
Take the above use of it’s and its. Thinking of the apostrophe as a missing ‘i’ we have ‘when the word it is used with can have two meanings’, which makes sense. Not using an apostrophe makes the word into what grammarians term a possessive determiner (like my, his, or her), which makes sense in its second use where ‘an apostrophe in it is sequence of letters’ is gobbledegook.
My, your, his, her, and its are five possessive determiners. Mine, yours, his, hers, and its are five possessive pronouns. None of them have an apostrophe. Note that ‘his’ and ‘its’ are both spelled the same regardless of their use. Neither takes an apostrophe. Don’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ unless you mean ‘it is’.
Apostrophes can get Possessive
When something is attributed to, or possessed by, someone or something then an apostrophe is used before an s at the end of the noun. You can think of the ’s as representing ‘of’ when you reverse the order of the possessor and the possessed. So we could have ‘this is Jack’s story’ and flip it to ‘this is the story of Jack’.
Here are a couple more: that’s the dog’s bone; it’s many people’s view that this has been Derby County’s best start to a season for ages.
When the plural of a noun ends in s put an apostrophe at the end of the word without adding the extra s: this is the dogs’ bone (more than one dog).
When a single noun ends in an s, however, there are differences of opinion as to whether to use an s or just an apostrophe. Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules recommends omitting the s where it makes the phrase difficult to pronounce, and gives the example of ‘the catharsis’ effects’. Generally, two sibilant sounds is okay but three is too much, so we have ‘this is James’s book’ but, of something belonging to two or more people called Jones, we have ‘this is the Joneses’ land/car/house’.
Another point to be aware of is how to deal with names for groups of people. The ‘Rams’ is the nickname for Derby County’s football team. Does that refer to a singular entity (the team) or each of the members in the team? Arsenal fans have a similar problem with the ‘Gunners’. Should it be ‘the Gunners’ (or Gunners’s) worst start to a season for ages’ or ‘the Rams’ (or Rams’s) best start to a season for ages’?
Now consider the word ‘glass’. Glass is a singular noun ending in s, so you should use ‘the glass’s thickness will stop a gorilla’. But what happens when you have glasses, as in spectacles? What does ‘the glasses’ scratches were obvious’ mean? Is that scratches on a pair of spectacles or on several drinking vessels? Perhaps a little ambiguity is a fair price for subduing all that sibilance.
Should you run into trouble with too many Ss then—unless you are typing a verbatim transcription, for instance—the best solution is almost always to recast the sentence. ‘The glasses’ shattered light gave the glass-blowers’ workplace a sparkling atmosphere’ reads much better as ‘the shattered light from the glasses gave a sparkling atmosphere to the workplace of the glass-blowers’.
The Case for the Plural Apostrophe
An apostrophe used with a lowercase word to indicate a plural is often referred to as ‘a greengrocer’s apostrophe’ and is an error. All the recognised English grammar styles agree that an apostrophe should not be used to indicate a plural. However, some styles do allow for this when adding a plural s to a capital letter. For instance, at the start of the last paragraph I mentioned ‘trouble with too many Ss’. I chose to distinguish the letter S from the plural s by using upper and lower cases—but this is inconsistent with my earlier use of single letters. Someone using an alternative style might have distinguished the two uses of s with ‘trouble with too many S’s’, or even ‘trouble with too many s’s’. As another example, instead of a report mentioning ‘several CEOs from different sectors’ this alternative style would have ‘several CEO’s from different sectors’. This plural apostrophe seems unnecessary to me, although Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules allows it where ‘clarity calls for it’. I believe the upper/lower case difference is sufficient, and there are other options such as using italics or inverted commas: too many ss, and too many ‘s’s. As mentioned before, to avoid an awkward apostrophe you can always recast the sentence: ‘too many instances of the letter s.’
OK’ing Apostrophes for Verbs
You can use an apostrophe to indicate that capital letters functioning as an abbreviation have become a verb. Some examples: Anderson Silva has a reputation for KO’ing his opponents; someone on a forum who sent you a private message has PM’d you; and you can even be ID’d these days. But what happens with acronyms, which are usually written as normal nouns? Has Libya recently been Nato’d or Natoed or Nato-ed? This point becomes more pertinent when you think of the encroaching net-speak emanating from the Web—even in blogs such as this. ‘Lol’ means ‘laugh out loud’ and is read as an acronym, not three letters, so using the past tense could I say that I lol’d or I loled or, to be grammatically consistent for the UK, I lolled? However you decide to deal with this (and it will need dealing with) remember to be consistent.
The Prime Case of the Mistaken Apostrophe
There is another symbol that looks very much like an apostrophe. It’s called a ‘prime’ (aka upright tick, upright inverted comma, minute mark, feet mark) and can occasionally be seen masquerading as an apostrophe—an imposter apostrophe. Typographers tend to see the mistaken use of the upright (and italicised) ′ as opposed to the curly ‘ as a rum do. Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules notes the use of upright quotation marks and offers them as a ‘third’ alternative to the two options of single or double quotation marks. It does not mention that a prime mark can substitute for an apostrophe.
Prime marks have many uses in English and in other languages—most notably mathematics, where it has no association with prime numbers. Perhaps the most common use in English is to indicate inches, feet, minutes, and arc minutes. For example, I am 6′ (feet) tall; he is taller at 6′ 6′′ (inches). There are many other uses of the prime mark. You may encounter problems with them when working with DTP programs, and may need to refer to your codes to ensure you publish the correct symbol.
I nearly apostrophised the start of this blog with ‘Oh little black squiggle …’, which would have been a nod to another definition of apostrophe: the word can also mean an exclamatory passage, in a speech or poem, addressed to a person or personified thing.
[As with all these grammar posts, your interesting and insightful comments are invited.]