Mind Your Apostrophes

The apostrophe is the most troublesome mark in all English punctuation.

Broadly put, these troubles can be divided into four distinct areas:

  1. Computer-specific issues

  2. Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

  3. Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

  4. Differences between American and Commonwealth English

There is a fair degree of overlap between these areas, but dividing the troubles into four makes all the problems a little easier to handle.

Computer-specific issues

Computer-specific troubles associated with this little mark can be put down the limitations of the ASCII character set.

This old, but still widely used, 7-bit character set, forces computer users to overload the so-called 'typewriter quote' by dragooning it into use as:

the opening single-quote mark
the closing single-quote mark
the apostrophe
the prime mark

(Before anyone asks, the prime mark is used to indicate arcminutes when writing out degrees of longitude and latitude, as in 34° 57′ South, 138° 31′ East. It is also used in the United States as a shorthand for 'feet' in their legacy, non-metric measurement system.)

By contrast, most 8-bit character sets enable computer users to represent all of these characters properly (ISO 8859-1 aka Latin-1, the default character set used on computers running X-Windows is a notable and frustrating exception). The problem then becomes ‘which 8-bit character set?'. MacRoman? Windows Latin-1? Never forgetting the application viewing the text might not use the same character set to display 'extended ASCII' characters as the application used to create said text.

All of which explains and justifies, albeit briefly, Unicode.

I'm an unashamed fan of Unicode. It is an effective, well-designed, open, fully-documented and multi-platform alternative to ASCII and its various bastard-children. Unfortunately -- as of late-2005 at least -- it isn't as widely used as I'd wish. For example, I'm still unwilling to switch away from plain ASCII for e-mail communications across computing platforms.

Given time, Unicode can and, I hope, will become the lowest-common denominator character encoding format for text exchange. If nothing else, I'd like to be in a position to use em-dashes and curly quotes in my e-mail.

Even assuming this happens, however, I don't expect writers will suddenly start using the apostrophe and similar marks with due care.

Rather, the widespread adoption of Unicode will, I suspect, result in at least two things:

  1. it will fully expose the extent to which most computer users don't know how to create opening and closing single-quote marks (to say nothing of the general ignorance of the prime mark's existence at all).

  2. it will do nothing to improve the use of the apostrophe proper in written communications.

With regards result 1 above, so-called ‘smart quotes' capabilities built-in to most word processors mean typographer's quote marks and apostrophes turn up automagically in many people's written work already. Hardly problem solved, but definitely problem ameliorated.

With regards result 2 above there is no curing the problem automatically. There is only taking the time to learn the over-loaded ways of the apostrophe and quote mark. So let's take the time.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

The first place I remember being taught about the apostrophe is its use as a marker denoting missing letters in contractions:

can not becomes can't in everyday speech
will not becomes won't in everyday speech
because becomes ’cause in casual speech
and becomes ’n' in bad advertising

And so on.

The last two examples above are worth paying attention to, especially if you are in a position to use proper opening and closing marks. In an ASCII-only setting, there is no question which character to use for an apostrophe: the typewriter or tear-drop mark is the only one available, so it's the one to use.

If you are able to use proper opening and closing marks, however, denote missing letters in a word with the apostrophe or closing mark, even if the missing letter is at the beginning of the word.

Folks following Commonwealth English rules, especially, need to watch for this. Because Commonwealth editorial habit is to use single quote marks for direct speech and quotation, it is very easy to see a single quote mark at the beginning of a word or phrase (or single letter as in the example above) and, almost automatically, set an opening quote mark.

Even if you follow US English practice (which prefers double quote marks for direct speech and quotation) this is an easy error to generate, especially if you've gotten into the habit of typing the typewriter mark and letting your software's ‘smart quotes' feature generate an opening or closing mark on your behalf.

No software that I'm aware of tries to distinquish between 'a word with an initial letter missing that requires an apostrophe' and 'a space followed by a typewriter quote mark that requires an opening quote'. In every case, the underlying algorithm will treat a space followed by a typewriter quote as cause to automagically turn said typewriter quote into an opening quote mark.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

This is, perhaps, the most troublesome use of a generally troublesome mark. That said, the basic rule for possessives is quite straightfoward: to denote possession, put an apostrophe and a lower-case ‘s' at the end of the noun (ie person, place or thing) which owns. So we have:

If you're having trouble deciding if a noun requires a possessive apostrophe re-cast the sentence so it has the form:

the [thing owned] of [the owner].

For example, each of the above sentences could be presented as follows:

  • the unusual interest in punctuation of Brian.
  • the failing memory of George.
  • the thoughts on the subject of possessive apostrophes of somebody else.
  • the searchable UseNet archive of Google.
  • the despair at my distractability of my wife.

None of these sentences is elegant, or even acceptable, English (‘of Google', in particular, grates my editor's ear). But they make it clear what is possessed and who or what possesses. With that established it's easier to use the possessive apostrophe correctly in the preferred constructions further above.

Unfortunately, establishing that a noun can take the possessive doesn't mean it should. Most will, but some won't, and the exceptions start to pile up the more you look into the question.

First up, it's worth noting that, just because a word ends with a letter ‘s', doesn't mean it doesn't take the standard 'apostrophe-s' to indicate possession. Many such words behave like other words. To wit:

  • James's last album
  • The bus's inability to arrive on time.

A noun which ends in s because it is the plural form doesn't take apostrophe-s, however: it only takes the apostrophe, like so:

  • the Klingons' preference for Shakespeare 'in the original Klingon.'
  • the ladies' powder room.
  • four weeks' holiday.
  • the footballers' training camp.

The logic for this has two aspects. First, we add a possessive apostrophe after the ‘s' in plural nouns because the thing that owns is the collective entity, not an individual example thereof. The apostrophe has to go after the plural ‘s' in such a case, to distinguish it from a possessive ‘s', which indicates that an individual member of the collective is the owner. For example:

The dogs' persistence was rewarded when they finally managed to wrest my dog's bone from her jaws.

The first possessive -- dogs' -- indicates it is a pack of dogs who are persisting. The second possessive -- dog's -- indicates it is a single dog that has lost her dinner.

And, please, please, don't forget the difference between one lady and many ladies.

The lady's powder room

is a powder room belonging to a particular woman.

The ladies' powder room

is a powder room available for use by any number of women.

As for the missing ‘s' in these plural possessives: its absence is fairly easy to explain. We don't pronounce these words with two ess sounds, so we don't write them with two s's.

This logic is also the basis of the second general exception to the 'always add apostrophe-s for possesives' rule: names that end in ‘s' only take apostrophe-s to indicate possesion if we actually pronounce the second s. So

  • Saint Saens' pre-occupation with organ music.
  • Socrates' self-righteousness.
  • Aristophanes' cynicism.
  • Ulysses' screwed up love-life.


  • Jesus's disciples.
  • Kiss's pyrotechnic rock concerts.

It's this second exception -- the not adding apostrophe-s on some words that end with s -- that causes most arguments.

There are those who still argue for 'Jesus' disciples' based on a 'classical names don't take the s' rule that occasionally appears in old style guides. FWIW, I don't follow this rule, primarily because even the old style guides can't agree what constitutes a 'classical name' for the purposes of applying the exception.

And the 'we add apostrophe-s if we pronounce the second s' rule is subject to local pronunciation habits.

I write 'Dr Jones's Office' because I say 'Doctor Jones's Office' (that is, I pronounce the second s). If you say 'Doctor Jones' Office' (ie you don't pronounce the second s) you would, quite rightly, leave the second ‘s' off the written version.

Since English pronounciation varies widely, even amongst native speakers, nothing is gained arguing for 'one true way' of writing such possessives. Which won't stop people arguing, sometimes passionately, for their preferred approach.

My only advice: be consistent. And don't waste a lot of energy if your editor has a different preference. Just remember who's authorising accounting to write your cheque.

it's vs its or pronoun possessives

The final exception to the 'add apostrophe-s to indicate possession' rule is the most problematic, which is why it gets a sub-head all its own.

Pronouns are the special case in the 'indicating possession' stakes: they never take the possessive apostrophe. So we have:

  • He lost his mind.
  • These rocks are ours. Those rocks over there are yours.
  • The snake coiled its body around the hapless pig.

The biggie here is possessive 'its'. Because the word 'it's' exists (it's the contraction for 'it is') it is common in the extreme to see errors such as 'The snake coiled it's body...' even in professionally written and edited writing.

It's an incredibly easy error to make, and not as easy to detect as you might think. There are, however, at least two ways of avoiding the error in the first place or detecting it in the second.

I learned the 'no pronouns take the possessive apostrophe' rule. So, if I have a moment's doubt, I just mentally substitute 'his' or 'hers' and, voila, I know which spelling is correct.

  • The snake coiled his body around the hapless pig.

This still makes sense, so it's correct to use the possessive 'its' here. OTOH

  • Whatever it's doing, the pig wants it to stop.

Substitute 'it's' with a gender-specific pronoun like 'his' and the sentence doesn't make sense:

  • Whatever his doing, the pig wants it to stop.

So, this sentence is using the contraction of 'it's'. The apostrophe indicating the missing 'i' is correct here.

Another way of checking for missing or errant apostrophes is to concentrate on 'it's' as a contracted form. If you write 'it's' in a sentence, mentally read it out in full as 'it is' to check if the sentence still makes sense.

Other methods for avoiding the error can be devised, I'm sure.

One more difference between American and Commonwealth English

In American English the apostrophe is used to form plural numeric dates:

the 1930’s.
the swinging ’60’s.

This is incorrect in Commonwealth English which treats the numbers as if they were letters and sees the added ‘s' as nothing more than an extra letter denoting the plural on an otherwise correctly spelled word:

the 1930s.
the swinging ’60s.

(Note in both examples, however, the apostrophe before the 60. This is to denote missing characters: in this case the characters are ‘19’.)

Both Commonwealth and American English put the apostrophe to use in forming other unusual plurals, however. For example, when suggesting we should

mind our p's and q's

the apostrophe-s to denote the plural of individual letters is the preferred form for followers of Hart's Rules and devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Why Does Anyone Care About This?

Finally, for those who think this is all a distraction from 'real work' I 1) wonder why you've read this far and 2) offer Paul Robinson's sublimely wonderful The Philosophy of Punctuation. Short, sweet and an almost pure delight.

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