Apostrophe’s and where to find them

(Posted on 14/05/18)

Apostrophe’s and where to find them

Before you mention it, yes, that is a deliberate mistake. The ‘apostrophes’ in the title doesn’t need an apostrophe. The misuse and misplacement of apostrophes is one of the most contentious and irritating aspects of written English to those who care passionately about such things, like the team at Zebra.

The apostrophe is probably the most misused form of punctuation in the English language. Like commas, they are often sprinkled randomly throughout a text, to give the impression of grammatical knowledge. Everyone thinks they know how to use apostrophes, but many don’t. However, the majority of people understand their use in the omission of letters in words. This can be the omission of a sound, vowel or syllable, especially in spoken language, known technically in linguistics as an elision. Examples include I’m for I am, let’s for let us. They are also used in contractions of words, such as can’t for cannot and don’t for do not. They perform the same function in other languages too, such as French (Çà est la vie becomes C’est la vie ). The omitted word or letters are replaced with an apostrophe, which merge the words into a single sound.

It gets more complicated when apostrophes denote possession, in the case of possessive nouns. Examples of this include the man’s hat, the woman’s dress, the boy’s shoe and the girl’s toy. The apostrophe shows to whom the item belongs. If there are more than one of the people/owners, then the plural example moves the apostrophe after the s, or if a plural term is used, the apostrophe remains in place. So for example, the men’s hats, the women’s dresses, the boys’ shoes and the girls’ toys. With regards to organisations, it should be the company’s policy, or for more than one company, the companies’ policy – never the companys’ policy. Some company names include an apostrophe in their names, for example Sainsbury’s, while other such as Morrisons don’t (or do not). It’s their prerogative to include one or not.

The same possessive rules apply when denoting time periods – for example, in one month’s time, or in three weeks’ time. In these cases, there is one month (singular) but three weeks (plural). Apostrophes can also be used to denote the plurals of single letters, as in mind your p’s and q’s, or “How many i’s are there in Mississippi?” – “There are four i’s”. Apostrophes can also be used of abbreviations, such as ’60s for the 1960s, or gov’t for government, and in some surnames, particularly in Ireland, such as O’Toole and O’Rourke.

The worst examples of apostrophe misuse are on homemade signage, often in markets or shops, where apostrophes are patently misplaced. These are known affectionately as greengrocers’ apostrophes. Common examples include ‘Potatoe’s for Sale’ or ‘Banana’s 50 pence’ (the banana does not own the money) ‘key’s cut while you wait’. Other examples include single-word signs, such as Sandwich’s or Onion’s. Knowing the basic rules goes a long way to understand where or when to deploy an apostrophe, while misuse ensures your writing will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.