The apostrophe has caused much confusion and stress for many people over the years. The popular confusion between plurals and possessives causes grammarians to cringe daily as they browse social media, emails, and other text. Even non-grammarians have pet peeves surrounding the use of the apostrophe. So where did this little floating mark come from and what are the rules surrounding its use?
The apostrophe is used to replace one or more letters, it indicates the possessive case, and it is used in languages other than English. There are some general rules that are easy to remember, but there are some more complicated rules that are important to know as well. In this post, we will go through the easy and the more difficult rules of using the apostrophe, the small but emotion-invoking little mark that hovers above all the other letters in contractions, slang, plurals, and possessives. Hopefully after reading this post you will have a greater understanding of how to properly use apostrophes.
In the simplest terms, contractions are when two words are combined into one. It is in this case that apostrophes become, in a sense, the English language's wildcard. In contractions, they replace one or more letters to shorten two words together. For example:
- It is → It's: The apostrophe replaces the "i" in "is."
- Are not → Aren't: The apostrophe replaces the "o" in "not."
Many people are confused when writing its and it's, your and you're, and their and they're. The key to knowing if the word requires a contraction is to see if it could be said using two words:
- You are → You're: The apostrophe replaces the "a" in "are."
- They are → They're: The apostrophe replaces the "a" in "are."
Similar to the contractions, slang words also make use of the apostrophe. While we often speak in slang terms—words that are regarded as very informal and are most often used in speech rather than written language—there are many times when written slang is important. For example, in social media and narrative writing, diction and word choice can make a specific impact on the conversation or topic. So where does the apostrophe come into play? Even when writing slang, it's important to make sure your readers know precisely what you mean.
- "Hang on, I'm comin'!" said Tom as he rowed the raft down the river.
- "Gig 'em!" yelled the Aggies fan as she put her thumb in the air.
In the above examples, the apostrophe has taken the place of one or more letters. It signifies either a spoken accent (comin') or it is simply letting the reader know what the word means ('em). You're probably doing it subconsciously right now! You know that when you see 'em versus just em that there are letters missing. Within the surrounding context, you can tell that 'em means "them." The sound of the word even changes slightly when you say the two out loud. Give it a try! Without the little floating punctuation mark in front of it, "em" sounds more like how you pronounce the letter "m." However, when you see the apostrophe, the "e" takes on a little more of an "uh" sound. It's not quite "um," but somewhere between um and em. And it's all thanks to the apostrophe.
While it is rare, sometimes apostrophes are used to indicate a plural. But there is really only one instance where this is proper usage: plurals of individual characters.
- "Mind your p's and q's!"
- "There were three 3's and two 4's"
The above examples show how setting off the standard plural "s" with an apostrophe helps to clarify the statement. While the numbers could possibly be understood without the apostrophe in the second example above, the individual letters in the first example could be more difficult to understand for someone not familiar with that idiom.
Possessives can be some of the most confusing uses of apostrophes. Here are some examples of apostrophe uses with possessives.
The general rule is when a word is indicating that one thing or person owns another thing or person (i.e., they possess that thing), then add an apostrophe plus "s":
- I went to Stacy's house for dinner. (The house belongs to Stacy.)
- That is Mark's book. (The book belongs to Mark.)
Names ending in "s"
When the person's name ends in an "s", then apostrophes can get a little confusing. In these cases, use the verbal pronunciation as a guide. Add an apostrophe and then the "s" where you would pronounce the extra "s," as in these examples:
- We babysat Thomas's son yesterday.
- Tess's dog is a German shepherd.
- Don't call James's phone.
If the "s" on the end isn't pronounced, then do not add it on the end.
- That was Mr. Bridges' desk.
- I went to Connors' house.
The only other time that the extra "s" isn't used is when the subject is a place or organization. In those cases, add the apostrophe but not the "s."
- They took him to St. Thomas' Hospital.
- The House of Ignatius' gardens are spectacular.
Plural nouns ending in "s"
When the noun or name is plural and ends with an "s," add only an apostrophe after the "s."
- The girls' party was a pink-themed party.
- She took the babies' bottles to the sink.
If the plural word does not end in "s," then add both the apostrophe and an "s."
- The women's department has fitting rooms.
- The men's room is being cleaned.
Apostrophes are not needed in cases where the word is a possessive and a pronoun. Pronouns include words like his, hers, and ours. While these words are possessive, the pronouns have possession built in and therefore do not need the apostrophe to identify that.
Apostrophes also hold the place of numbers. One situation where an apostrophe is most used is in writing the year using only two digits instead of four.
- "Back in '67 we used to camp out by the lake every weekend."
- "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams
There are several key points to remember about using apostrophes.
- If you are simply making a word plural, do not add an apostrophe. Add either an "s" or "es," or take the Latin or Greek plural form, if applicable. For example:
- The 1970s and the 1880s
- Do not use an apostrophe with the personal pronouns discussed above (i.e., theirs, ours, hers, his, etc.).
- If a noun is plural but not a possessive, then do not include an apostrophe (i.e., 25s or 1960s).
- If a verb ends in "s," no apostrophe is needed.
- If you are asking to whom a bike belongs, then you would ask, "Whose bike is this?" Notice no apostrophe. If you want to ask who is coming to dinner, you would ask, "Who's coming to dinner?" Notice that the "who's" means "who is."
- Whose turn is it to take out the trash?
- I wonder who's going to play Hamlet.
- Don't put apostrophes just anywhere hoping someone else will tell you where to put it. Spend the time to learn the rules, practice them, and, if needed, get someone to help you.
History of apostrophes
The history of apostrophes is pretty vague and is full of guesses. Some say that Geoffrey Tory, who also created the cedilla and the accent mark, used the apostrophe in 1529 in French, which was the first usage recorded. However, this is not a solid fact about the apostrophe's origins—it is merely a guess at when its usage first appeared.
Despite this early start, the apostrophe didn't become very popular until the mid-1700s. During that time, not many people understood its proper usage, even more than today! The history of contractions is tied with the history of apostrophes, such that, for example, The King's Book was essentially thought to mean The King His Book. Back in Old English times, the statement would have said The Kinges Book. Going back to our wildcard idea, if the apostrophe takes the place of the "e" in "Kinges" above, then you get King's!
Even though this sounds nice and like a simple way to explain the use of the possessive plural, it wasn't a consensus adoption. Even today, we still have discussions and arguments about the apostrophe.
You might think that apostrophes in the English language are numerous, but in French they are used, on average, more than once per sentence. Compare that to English, where apostrophes occur only about one time for every 20 sentences. This might explain why so many people have trouble using them!
That leads us to another fun fact. Apostrophes are the number one punctuation mark that are misused and misunderstood. Out of all the punctuation marks we have and use, and after all the languages English has stolen from, the apostrophe just won't be able to let it go.
Apostrophes are taught in school usually starting in grade 2 or 3. Even with all of that training and starting so young, apostrophes still seem to elude a large number of people in their convoluted rule sets.
The single closing quotation mark can be confused with the apostrophe because they look very similar, but they have different meanings. Additionally, the prime symbol, which looks like this ′, is also not an apostrophe. The prime symbol indicates measurement in feet or arcminutes, and it is also used in mathematics. Another similar punctuation mark, the ʻokina ( ʻ ) represents what is called a glottal stop in Polynesian languages.
There are even more similar punctuation marks. Even though you probably won't use them, the ´ (acute) and ` (grave) are most often seen in informal writing where an ambiguous treatment of the apostrophe in digital typesetting is a major factor of this confusion.
The Oxford English Dictionary has a very good section on the use of the apostrophe, as does the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. If you still aren't good at using the apostrophes correctly, then simply hire one of ServiceScape's high-quality editors to review your document for errors and let them help you. You don't want your readers to be distracted by poor grammar and poor placement of apostrophes.