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The apostrophe and why it is so troublesome

The apostrophe is the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It certainly causes much perplexity but it is there for the sake of clarity. The word is derived from the Greek to turn away.

The apostrophe has three purposes

• It indicates the possessive case (as in the lion’s den).
• It indicates the omission or contraction of one or more letters (as in can’t for can not).
• It indicates (but not always) the plural of figures or letters (as in Mind your p’s and q’s or The swinging 60’s).

Note that English is not consistent in the use of apostrophes. American English favours using the apostrophe after figures but British English does not. So in British English one writes 60s or 1980s, not 60’s or 1980’s. In South Africa we do not follow American English.

The possessive apostrophe

The possessive apostrophe is followed by an s to indicate the possessive singular form of a noun e.g. the lion’s den. This applies even to names ending in s, such as Thomas or Jones e.g. Mr Jones’s car. Note, however, that opinions differ on how to deal with singular nouns ending in s, as in boss. Some writers say that we should add an apostrophe only (as in American English) although in British English it is correct to add an apostrophe followed by an s. So in American English the boss’ office and Mr Jones’ house is correct and in British English the boss’s office and Mr Jones’s house is correct. As mentioned earlier, in South Africa we follow British English.

For the possessive plural form the apostrophe is put behind the s. So the lions’ den tells us that the den belongs to several lions. This is understandable as nobody pronounces the word lions as if it had two esses (or is it s’s?).

Confusion caused by the apostrophe

Some confusion can arise in words such as people, women and children which, although plural, are treated in the same way as singular nouns e.g. the children’s playground. More confusion is caused by names ending in s, such as Ulysses. The possessive form is not pronounced as if it had an extra s, as in Ulysses’s travels. Therefore we say and write Ulysses’ travels.

And even more confusion occurs with the possessive plural forms of mice (plural of mouse) or dice (plural of die) or pence (plural of penny). These are treated as singular nouns e.g. mice’s tails.

The apostrophe and possessive personal pronouns

Possessive personal pronouns never take an apostrophe. These are: ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs and whose.
Except in rare cases of separate possession, as opposed to joint possession, we do not use two possessive apostrophes together. Therefore it is wrong to write Jack’s and Jill’s pail of water. Only the last-mentioned noun has the apostrophe: Jack and Jill’s pail of water.

The apostrophe indicating contractions or omissions

Omissions or contractions are shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been left out. Common examples are it’s, we’ll, can’t and don’t. Remember that the apostrophe is placed exactly where the omitted letters should have been. It is not wrong to use omissions / contractions in formal writing, but use them sparingly. Some words that have been written as contractions for ages are still written with apostrophes: o’clock (of the clock), man o’ war (man of war) and fo’c’s’le (forecastle).

Clipped forms are fairly common in English. They are similar to contractions or omissions but differ in one important respect. They are formed by chopping off a piece of a longer word to make a word in its own right. Examples are gym from gymnasium, flu from influenza, bus from omnibus and phone from telephone. These words are accepted in their own right and are not written with apostrophes.

Contractions and omissions must be distinguished from abbreviations. They include Mr for Mister, Dr for Doctor, kg for kilograms and sci-fi for science fiction. Years sometimes appear in their abbreviated form: ’98 for 1898 but never the ’39 – ’45 war. Instead you write the 1939 – 45 war.

Apostrophes are sometimes used in non-English names: O’Brien, O’Hara, D’Angelo, D’Artagnan. Apostrophes are also sometimes used when representing words in non-standard forms of English. For example the Scottish poet Burns writes gi’ for give and a’ for all.

Apostrophes forming plurals of letters or figures

As a general rule an apostrophe is never used when writing plural forms. Examples of errors are pizza’s instead of pizzas, video’s instead of videos and Jones’s instead of Joneses.

In British English the apostrophe is not used when pluralising dates: the fashion of the 1980s. However, it is used when pluralising letters: there are four i’s and four s’s in the name Mississippi. Without these apostrophes this sentence would be hard to understand.

Apostrophes are sometimes used when writing a group of numbers, as in many 1000’s of birds, although it is preferable to write the number in words.

As a general rule always use the apostrophe if it seems essential for clarity.


Richard Bach
Richard Bach

Richard Bach (23 June 1936)

Richard David Bach is an American writer. He is widely known as the author of the hugely popular 1970s best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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