On the humble apostrophe

20 Apr

I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything on the apostrophe, as it seems such a basic thing that people like me who work with words tend to go on about (we don’t really roam the streets, Sharpie in hand, looking for hapless greengrocers … )

But then I noticed more and more confusions, and a friend or two mentioned that they still weren’t sure, so: the humble apostrophe.

Turning to the dictionary, an apostrophe is “an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person or personified thing.” Oh – not the one we want. OK, it’s “a punctuation mark (‘) used to indicate either possession or the omission of letters or numbers.” That’s better.

Let’s move on to Hart’s Rules, which, oddly enough, contains the rules of English. The following information is summarised from Hart’s. Please do pay attention to all but the ones I mark as terribly hard – they are the ones where you need to know there’s something funny about them and you’ll need to look them up. That’s what we all do, just to check …

The apostrophe is used in two ways – to show possession (ownership) and to mark where letters or numbers have been missed out.

– Use an apostrophe and an s with a normal single noun or indefinite pronoun to show possession – the girl’s job, the box’s contents, anyone’s guess.
A bit harder
– Use the apostrophe and s combination for plural nouns that don’t end in s – people’s opinions, children’s toys.
– Do NOT use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns: hers, its, ours, yours, theirs – theirs is the kingdom of heaven, a friend of yours, give the dog its dinner (it’s easier to remember the “its” rule if you think of it belonging to this section).
A bit harder still
– Use the apostrophe alone (no s after it) after plural nouns that DO end in s – our neighbours’ gardens, other countries’ borders.
– In compound and “of” phrases, the apostrophe (and the plural, in fact) go after the last noun – my sister-in-law’s son, the King of Spain’s estates.
– Use an apostrophe and s with personal names ending with an s, x, or z sound – Charles’s, Dickens’s, Marx’s and Jesus’s.
Ever so hard (to be honest I sometimes have to look these up and I don’t often see them used correctly) …
– Use an apostrophe and no s when talking about time passing – in a few days’ time, a few weeks’ holiday. But if it’s in the name of a war, no apostrophe – The Hundred Years War.
– A double possessive (making use of both “of” and an apostrophe) may be used with nouns related to living beings or personal names – a speech of Churchill OR a speech of Churchill’s. But it’s not used with nouns referring to organisations, etc. – a friend of the National Gallery.
– A double set of nouns – apostrophe and s go after them if they are acting together – Broomfield and Dexter’s “The Rules of Grammar” – but not if they’re separate – Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s tragedies.
– Apostrophe and no s for a singular noun that ends in an s or z sound combined with “sake” – for goodness’ sake, for old times’ sake (times here is a plural so has the apostrophe after the s). This is the one I have to look up. Maybe you should save this blog post for those purposes.
Believe me, there are more obscure rules, for example those dealing with Greek names. If you need to know, ask me!

Just – don’t. If you really, really need to differentiate, you are just about allowed a small, occasional one, only in examples like – dot the i’s and cross the t’s, find all the number 5’s. But that’s it. And there’s not one with numbers any more, although this has changed in the last decade or so: the 1980s not the 1980’s.

Use an apostrophe when a letter or number has been missed out: won’t, we’ll, bo’sun, ’70s, it’s warm out today.
A bit harder
Don’t use an apostrophe before a word that’s been shortened but is now in general use – flu, cello and phone, not ‘flu, ‘cello and ‘phone.
If the apostrophe replaces the beginning or end of a word, it has a space before/after it to make the word stay separate – rock ‘n’ roll. If the apostrophe replaces a letter in the middle of the word, no space – ma’am, o’er.
Madly hard to remember
An apostrophe is used before the suffix when an abbreviation functions as a verb – KO’d, OD’ing.

Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th rev. ed.) Oxford: OUP, 2008.
New Hart’s Rules Oxford: OUP, 2005.


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14 responses to “On the humble apostrophe

  1. notjustlaura

    April 20, 2011 at 8:06 am

    I’m blushing now as I realise how often I’ve been getting some of these wrong! This is a post to bookmark!


  2. libroediting

    April 20, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Glad to be of help!


  3. Katweeble

    April 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Thanks this is really helpful – but I am not sure I will remember every time though, I am one of the people who am not confident about the use of the apostrophe


    • libroediting

      April 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      Thank you, Kate! I suppose you could bookmark this post and then remember to check if you’re not sure. And, like I say in the post, there are some I (and I’m sure other copy-editors) have to check myself!


  4. Stacey Barnes

    April 21, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Excellent post, definitely bookmarking it! I think the rest of Twitter needs to see it too…


    • libroediting

      April 21, 2011 at 8:05 am

      Thanks Stacey – and any forwarding / tweeting is appreciated!


  5. Krys

    April 23, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Well, I must admit the “few days’ time” rule is a new one to me! I’m afraid to say I have never used an apostrophe in such a case, although, now you’ve mentioned it, I see the logic.

    I like the other apostrophe: “an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person or personified thing.” I use many such apostrophes to address my wireless network when it drops the connection every half hour or so.

    Incidentally, citing the above has opened a question for me. You have placed the full stop inside the quotation marks (as copied and pasted here), even though the quotation is not the whole of the sentence. I understood that to be US style, and that British style places the full stop outside the quotation marks if there is anything in the sentence before the start of the actual quotation. Maybe I’m just confused?


    • libroediting

      April 24, 2011 at 2:45 am

      Thanks for the comment, Krys! I do like the more obscure ones, I have to admit – although it’s taken a good few goes at the “few days’ time” rule to be able to remember it …

      Regarding the punctuation / quotation marks issue – there has been much discussion about this on the copy-editors’ forum to which I belong, and it’s generally accepted now that this is “allowed” in BrE as well as AmE English – just like ize- and ise- spellings, it’s a choice, although obviously with consistency through the text. I’d be prepared to bet that I haven’t been consistent with it through my blog, though, as the discussion was fairly recent!


      • Krys

        April 24, 2011 at 3:41 am

        My old copy (39th edition) of Hart’s Rules has two pages on the subject! It is not, however, desperately helpful, saying that if the quotation is more than one word, or less than a complete sentence, or it is not clear whether the quotation is a complete sentence, then “judgement must be used” when making the decision. Hmmm….


  6. libroediting

    April 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

    “New Hart’s Rules” (2005) says we have moved from “traditional” British style to using the American version in fiction and journalism and that it’s down to our choice for other forms …


  7. John L Holmes

    October 31, 2017 at 12:42 am

    The use of apostrophes to denote possession is ALWAYS easy! This is my rule that covers all contingencies and it always works.

    Irrespective of its number, take the noun and add ‘s to it. That’s it – a universal rule. If this results in 2 consecutive s’s then drop the second s if you wish.

    Thus: Fred – Fred’s Children-Children’s Gentlemen-Gentlemen’s Ladies – Ladies’s or Ladies’.
    And (of course) this is John Holmes’ rule.


    • Liz Dexter

      October 31, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      “Drop the second s if you wish” doesn’t work with the pencils belonging to the boys, as you HAVE to drop the second s then. If you keep the rule to always drop the second s, then I think you’re fine.



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