The apostrophe (') is the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful. No other punctuation mark causes so much bewilderment, or is so often misused. On the one hand, shops offer *pizza's, *video's, *greeting's cards and *ladie's clothing; on the other, they offer *childrens shoes and *artists supplies. The confusion about apostrophes is so great, in comparison with the small amount of useful work they perform, that many distinguished writers and linguists have argued that the best way of eliminating the confusion would be to get rid of this troublesome squiggle altogether and never use it at all.
They are probably right, but unfortunately the apostrophe has not been abolished yet, and it is a blunt fact that the incorrect use of apostrophes will make your writing look illiterate more quickly than almost any other kind of mistake. I'm afraid, therefore, that, if you find apostrophes difficult, you will just have to grit your teeth and get down to work.
The apostrophe is used in writing contractions — that is, shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been omitted. In standard English, this generally happens only with a small number of conventional items, mostly involving verbs. Here are some of the commonest examples, with their uncontracted equivalents:
it is or it has
we will or we shall
he would or he had
she would have
Note in each case that the apostrophe appears precisely in the position of the omitted letters: we write can't, not *ca'nt, and aren't, not *are'nt. Note also that the irregular contraction won't takes its apostrophe between the n and the t, just like all other contractions involving not. And note also that she'd've has two apostrophes, because material has been omitted from two positions.
It is not wrong to use such contractions in formal writing, but you should use them sparingly, since they tend to make your writing appear less than fully formal. Since I'm trying to make this document seem chatty rather than intimidating, I've been using a few contractions here and there, though not as many as I might have used. But I advise you not to use the more colloquial contractions like she'd've in your formal writing: these things, while perfectly normal in speech, are a little too informal for careful writing.
Such contractions represent the most useful job the apostrophe does for us, since, without it, we would have no way of expressing in writing the difference between she'll and shell, he'll and hell, can't and cant, I'll and ill, we're and were, she'd and shed, we'll and well, and perhaps a few others.
A few words which were contractions long ago are still conventionally written with apostrophes, even though the longer forms have more or less dropped out of use. There are so few of these that you can easily learn them all. Here are the commonest ones, with their original longer forms:
of the clock
Some generations ago there were rather more contractions in regular use in English; these other contractions are now archaic, and you wouldn't normally use any of them except in direct quotations from older written work. Here are a few of them, with their longer forms:
There are other contractions which are often heard in speech. Here are a few:
'Fraid so.'Nother drink?
I s'pose so.'S not funny.
It is, of course, never appropriate to use such colloquial forms in formal writing, except when you are explicitly writing about colloquial English. If you do have occasion to cite or use these things, you should use apostrophes in the normal way to mark the elided material.
Contractions must be carefully distinguished from clipped forms. A clipped form is a full word which happens to be derived by chopping a piece off a longer word, usually one with the same meaning. Clipped forms are very common in English; here are a few, with their related longer forms:
Such clipped forms are not regarded as contractions, and they should not be written with apostrophes. Writing things like hippo', bra', 'cello and 'phone will, not to mince words, make you look like an affected old fuddy duddy who doesn't quite approve of anything that's happened since 1912. Of course, some of these clipped forms are still rather colloquial, and in formal writing you would normally prefer to write detective and alligator, rather than tec and gator. Others, however, are perfectly normal in formal writing: even the most dignified music critic would call Ofra Harnoy's instrument a cello; he would no more use violoncello than he would apply the word omnibus to a
Important note: Contractions must also be carefully distinguished from abbreviations. Abbreviations are things like Mr for Mister, lb. for pound(s), bc for before Christ and e.g. for for example.
Finally, there are a few circumstances in which apostrophes are used to represent the omission of some material in cases which are not exactly contractions. First, certain surnames of non-English origin are written with apostrophes: O'Leary (Irish), d'Abbadie (French), D'Angelo (Italian), M'Tavish (Scots Gaelic). These are not really contractions because there is no alternative way of writing them.
Second, apostrophes are sometimes used in representing words in non standard forms of English: thus the Scots poet Robert Burns writes gi' for give and a' for all. You are hardly likely to need this device except when you are quoting from such work.
Third, a year is occasionally written in an abbreviated form with an apostrophe: Pío Baroja was a distinctive member of the generation of '98. This is only normal in certain set expressions; in my example, the phrase generation of '98 is an accepted label for a certain group of Spanish writers, and it would not be normal to write *generation of 1898. Except for such conventional phrases, however, you should always write out years in full when you are writing formally: do not write something like *the '39–'45 war, but write instead the 1939–1945 war.
As a general rule, we never use an apostrophe in writing plural forms. (A plural form is one that denotes more than one of something.) Hence the things that those shops are selling are pizzas, videos, fine wines, cream teas and mountain bikes. It is absolutely wrong to write *pizza's, *video's, *fine wine's, *cream tea's and *mountain bike's if you merely want to talk about more than one pizza or video or whatever. The same goes even when you want to pluralize a proper name:
She's trying to keep up with the Joneses.
There are four Steves and three Julies in my class.
Several of the Eleanor Crosses are still standing today.
Do not write things like *Jones's, *Steve's, *Julie's or *Eleanor Cross's if you are merely talking about more than one person or thing with that name.
In British usage, we do not use an apostrophe in pluralizing dates:
This research was carried out in the 1970s.
American usage, however, does put an apostrophe here:
(A) This research was carried out in the 1970's.
You should not adopt this practice unless you are specifically writing for an American audience.
In writing the plurals of numbers, usage varies. Both of the following may be encountered:
If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental 1s and 7s in the address.
If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental 1's and 7's in the address.
Here, the first form is admittedly a little hard on the eye, and the apostrophes may make your sentence clearer. In most cases, though, you can avoid the problem entirely simply by writing out the numerals:
If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental ones and sevens in the address.
An apostrophe is indispensable, however, in the rare case in which you need to pluralize a letter of the alphabet or some other unusual form which would become unrecognizable with a plural ending stuck on it:
Mind your p's and q's.
How many s's are there in
It is very bad style to spatter e.g.'s and i.e.'s through your writing.
Without the apostrophes, these would be unreadable. So, when you have to pluralize an orthographically unusual form, use an apostrophe if it seems to be essential for clarity, but don't use one if the written form is perfectly clear without it. (Note that I have italicized these odd forms; this is a very good practice if you can produce italics.)
An apostrophe is used in a possessive form, like Esther's family or Janet's cigarettes, and this is the use of the apostrophe which causes most of the trouble. The basic rule is simple enough: a possessive form is spelled with 's at the end. Hence:
my brother's girlfriend
Wittgenstein's last book
the aircraft's black box
a week's work
my money's worth
This rule applies in most cases even with a name ending in s:
the bus's arrival
Steve Davis's victory
There are three types of exception. First, a plural noun which already ends in s takes only a following apostrophe:
the girls' excitement
my parents' wedding
both players' injuries
the Klingons' attack
the ladies' room
two weeks' work
This is reasonable. We don't pronounce these words with two esses, and so we don't write two esses: nobody says *the girls's excitement. But note that plurals that don't end in s take the ordinary form: see the cases of children and women above.
Second, a name ending in s takes only an apostrophe if the possessive form is not pronounced with an extra s. Hence:
Saint Saens' music
Same reason: we don't say *Ulysses's companions, and so we don't write the extra s.
The final class of exceptions is pronouns. Note the following:
He lost his book.
Which seats are ours?
The bull lowered its head.
Whose are these spectacles?
Note in particular the spelling of possessive its. This word never takes an apostrophe:
*The bull lowered it's head.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong — but it is one of the commonest of all punctuation errors. I have even met teachers of English who get this wrong. The conventional spelling its is no doubt totally illogical, but it's nonetheless conventional, and spelling the possessive as it's will cause many readers to turn up their noses at you. The mistake is very conspicuous, but fortunately it's also easy to fix — there's only one word — so learn the standard spelling. (There is an English word spelled it's, of course, and indeed I've just used it in the preceding sentence, but this is not a possessive: it's the contracted form of it is or of it has. And there is no English word spelled *its' — this is another common error for its.)
The same goes for possessive whose: this cannot be spelled as *who's, though again there is a word who's, a contraction of who is or of who has, as in Who's your friend? or Who's got a corkscrew?
Note, however, that the indefinite pronoun one forms an ordinary possessive one's, as in One must choose one's words carefully.
There is a further point about writing possessives: when you add an apostrophe-s or an apostrophe alone to form a possessive, the thing that comes before the apostrophe must be a real English word, and it must also be the right English word. Thus, for example, something like *ladie's shoes is impossible, because there is no such word as *ladie. Moreover, a department in a shoeshop could not be called *lady's shoes, because what the shop is selling is shoes for ladies, and not *shoes for lady, which is meaningless. The correct form is ladies' shoes. (Compare that lady's shoes, which is fine.)
Finally, while we're discussing clothing departments, observe that there is at least one irritating exception: though we write men's clothing, as usual, we write menswear as a single word, with no apostrophe. By historical accident, this has come to be regarded as a single word in English. But just this one: we do not write *womenswear or *childrenswear. Sorry.