→ Carina Beyer
I recently came across a story about a British ‘grammar vigilante’ who stalks the streets of Bristol fixing grammatical mistakes on the signs of local businesses. Using a home-made ‘apostrophiser’ he covers up errant apostrophes with stickers or adds them to signs where they’re missing.
The apostrophe is one of the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in the English language, and still presents a challenge for a lot of people. Perhaps this is due to a gap in our education or maybe no one was paying enough attention in school. Either way, there seems to be a serious lack of understanding and appreciation for this important punctuation mark.
So why is it that so many people struggle with using the apostrophe? I decided to do a bit more digging and see what I could find out.
A Little Bit of History
What I didn’t know is that the apostrophe originated in France in the 16th century (I really shouldn’t be so surprised—it sounds French!). Derived from the Greek word apóostrophoes, meaning ‘turning away’, it was introduced into the language as a way of showing when a letter or letters were missing or omitted from a word.
In Middle English an expression like 'the king’s castle' was shortened from 'the king his castle'. First is was shortened so that the suffix of the noun was –es. It was then shortened again to a single -s and the apostrophe was used to mark the missing letter ‘e’:
the king his castle
the kinges castle
the king’s castle
Even then, the apostrophe was still not used regularly or considered to be an integral part of our language until a century later.
A Challenge for the Modern Citizen
Perhaps some of the problems with apostrophes stem from the many errors we see in our daily lives: the punctuation mistakes we see in shop fronts and street signs which reinforce their misuse.
The most common of these is to insert a possessive apostrophe where it’s not needed. There are many examples of this online and it’s not just small businesses who get it wrong. Myer, Australia’s largest department store group, featured an incorrect apostrophe in their 2012 Boxing Day campaign, a fact that shoppers across Australia didn’t hesitate to point out and share online.
So why use them at all, if there’s such confusion as to when and where they should be used?
The main purpose of the apostrophe is to make the meaning of a word or sentence clear. If we don’t have apostrophes to make it obvious what the writer means, the reader can be easily confused and unsure of what is being expressed. It seems harmless, but it can mean the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. Apostrophe mistakes are among the most common punctuation blunders, and whether you like it or not, most readers will form negative opinions of your work if it has many of these mistakes.
No post about apostrophes would be complete without explaining how they work, so let’s dive into some common apostrophe rules:
1. THE CONTRACTION
I'd [I would] rather buy my own meal if you won't [will not] put your hand in your pocket.
The apostrophe’s original function in English was to show where part of a word had been omitted and it is still used in this way today, when two words join to form a contraction.
Examples of this are: I’ve (I have), it’s (it is), they’re (they are), you’re (you are) and so on.
Contractions are common in everyday language, perhaps because they lend themselves to brevity—they appeal to the lazier part of ourselves which wants to communicate in as few words as possible. More and more of our words and phrases are being shortened
Many people confuse the contraction of 'it’s' with the possessive form 'its' which doesn’t have an apostrophe.
Contractions such as won’t (will not) and shan’t (shall not) often present a greater challenge because they have letters missing from more than one place (even though they only have one apostrophe).
The problem with contractions is that the spell-check on your computer won’t pick up these kinds of mistakes because they are still legitimate words, just used in the wrong context. The computer will offer you alternative spellings, but you still have to choose which is the right one to use.
2. THE POSSESSIVE
His mum’s favourite vase fell to the floor.
The term possession is used much more loosely now than when the apostrophe was first introduced. Originally it was thought to be improper for an inanimate object such as a table to have the power of possession. The apostrophe now also marks association or affiliation rather than just possession.
Note that the possessive 'its', like other possessive pronouns ('hers', 'ours', 'yours'), does not have an apostrophe.
General rule: for most singular nouns and plural nouns that don’t end in s, add ’s to show possession:
The dog’s leash, the author’s book, the child’s ball.
If a word is a plural and ends with an ‘s’, only an apostrophe is added.
The boys’ coats—the coats belong to a group of boys.
The children’s toys.—the word children is the plural of child, so it needs ’s.
An easy trick to help you decide where to put possessive apostrophes is to put the apostrophe where you think it should go, cover the apostrophe and look to the left—is it in the form you want?
The girl’s basketball team—this would mean a one-girl team.
The girls’ basketball team—this means that the noun is plural.
When it comes to proper nouns that end in s, you can either add a single apostrophe or you can add ’s. This is a decision of style, not a rule, and different style guides will differ in their recommendations.
Charles Dickens’ novels or Charles Dickens’s novels—both are correct.
Plural proper nouns that end in s should only have an apostrophe added.
The Smiths’ house
Is it a plural? If so, don’t use an apostrophe. It has become a common mistake to use unnecessary apostrophes to form plurals. This commonly referred to as the greengrocer’s apostrophe.
The only time you should use an apostrophe when dealing with plural words is when pluralising lowercase letters:
Don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
There are two t’s in the word kitten.
This is to avoid any confusion as to the meaning of the sentence.
Perhaps it is because of the variations in the rules that many people become confused or misunderstand how to use the apostrophe. All I can say is this: there are so many resources available to help you. No matter your competency level you only have to do a search on Google to find hundreds of books and online sources to educate you on the rules.
Despite the many numerous tools out there, many people still find the apostrophe a challenge. You need only look at the countless memes, cartoons and news articles about apostrophe fails to see this is true. Whatever the reason for their struggle, it seems there is a greater need—now more than ever—to educate people on how to use apostrophes.