Sunday, January 16, 2011

The do’s and don'ts of apostrophe use

No area of punctuation seems to give native speakers more problems than the apostrophe; a 2008 survey found that nearly half of the UK adults polled were unable to use it correctly. And no area of punctuation seems to cause people to get so hot under the collar at what they see as its ‘abuse’. There are even societies and websites devoted to to protecting it, and exposing the dastardly attacks on this fine and noble (but rather unimportant) little punctuation mark.

Some shops, such as Tescos, have just given up completely and consigned the apostrophe to the dustbin.

Yet the rules for using it are remarkably simple and (mainly) uncontroversial.

Nearly everything you want to know, and some things you probably don't want to hear, about apostrophes
  • Contractions quiz
  • Possessives quiz
  • Possessive determiners and pronouns quiz
  • Confusing words quiz
  • Apostrophes quiz
  • Annotated rant
  • 2 Vocabulary quizzes
  • Lots of links

When you see this button: ? mouse over it for instructions how to click and drop

Some do's

1. Do use an apostrophe to show where letters have been omitted (left out)

This is mostly used in contractions.

Ex 1. Contractions

Type in the contractions for these phrases. Keep going till you get them all right.
(you are) late!(you are not) early
(it is) very kind of you(we have) eaten, thank you
(they are) Danish(they are not) Swedish
(they had) just arrived(they had not) eaten yet

But the apostrophe can also be used to indicate popular or dialect forms

Ex 2. Dialect and popular speech forms

  1. Click here to load words into the boxes
  2. Look at the model sentences
  3. Add apostrophes to replace the missing letters, where appropriate
  4. Then check
1. OK lads, let's rock and roll
OK , let's
2. Right mate, this is Hackney (London dialect, with glottal stop, and dropped 'h')
, this is , it?
Notice the question tag where there is no question, this is typical Cockney

2. Do use an apostrophe with the letter 's' to form the possessives of nouns.

Ex 3 possessive 's'

Use your instinct and type (or copy and paste) the words in bold into the boxes, adding an apostrophe in the correct place, and also an 's' where necessary. Check your answers as you go along. Just keep trying and checking your answers till you get them all right. Then complete the rules with the drop-down selects and check.
1. With singular nouns:
We have a dog, and it has a bone. This is the bone.
Rule: add
2. With regular plural nouns (i.e. ending in -s):
We have some cats, and they have some toys. These are the toys.
Rule: add
3. With irregular plural nouns (e.g. men, women, children):
We have two small children, and this is their room. This is the room.
Rule: add
4. With compound nouns:
This the house of my brother-in-law. This is my house.
Rule: add
5. In cases of joint possession (when two or more people own something together):
That house at the bottom of the hill belongs to Jack and Jill. That's house.
Rule: add to
6. But when they own some things separately:
Jack and Jill are a two-car family. Jack has his own car, and Jill has her own car. Those are cars parked over there.
Rule: add to
7. Where a noun ends with the sound /s/ or /z/:
My colleague James has an office next to that of the boss. My colleague office is next to the office.
Rule: add But see note below
8. Where we have the plural of a family name ending with the sound /s/ or /z/:
Our neighbours are the Joneses. That's Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jones and all the little Joneses. 'Look at the new car. Can't we have one like that?'
Rule: add
Note that other plurals of family names (e.g. the Browns, the Smiths) are simply treated like normal regular plurals.
Possessives: Rules:

Note - nouns ending with the a sibilant - the sound /s/ or /z/: there are some differences in opinion about this one, and Wikipedia devotes a whole section to it. Classical and biblical names are not usually given an extra 's', simply an apostrophe. Some authorities say you don't need the extra 's' if you think it makes the possessive sound awkward. This is really beyond the scope of this post, so if you're concerned, I would check out Wikipedia.

A bit of trivia - some experts think that the apostrophe with the possessive -'s also shows where a letter has been omitted, the argument going that there used to be a genitive case ending -es, and the apostrophe has replaced the 'e', neatly giving us one rule instead of two.

Some don'ts

1. Don't use an apostrophe with the standard plural 's'.

Because this is often done (incorrectly) in shops, it is sometimes known as the greengrocers' apostrophe. This seems to be what the apostrophe watchers get most upset about. (See discussion below).
So: bananas, mangoes and apples
not banana's, mango's and apple's

2. Don't use an apostrophe with a possessive

Ex 4. Possessive determiners and possessive pronouns

Complete this table

Ex. 5 Confusing words

Some people get confused between there, they're and their; it's and its; and also between your and you're. Complete this story by filling the gaps. ? You will need to use some of the words more than once.

theirs   there   it's   you're   their   its   your   they're  

Look over , Jack and Jill, next door neighbours. And taking new puppy for a walk. No, wrong, not Jack and Jill. And that puppy isn't , is a labrador. This one looks as though lost owner. Look, coming over to check us out. Let's see what it says on collar. Oh, are some people coming up the road who look as though looking for something. Perhaps owners.

Summary so far

For nearly everything you're going to come across, that's really all you'll need to know:

Two simple do's and two simple don'ts

Yet this is where most mistakes are made.

But there's one more do

There's another slightly more controversial do - the p's and q's of dotting the i's and crossing the t's

When forming the plurals of certain abbreviations, acronyms and single letter words an apostrophe is sometimes used to avoid confusion.

Ex 6 Abbreviations, acronyms etc

Use your instinct. Write the words in brackets into the boxes, adding an apostrophe where you think there may be some confusion.

1.Single letters in lower case:There are three (ws) in 'www'
2.Short words in upper case:We bought three (CDs).
3.Decades:I love the music of the (1960s)
4.Short words in lower case:Both her (exs) came to her wedding

But see Discussions 1 and 2 below.

Discussion 1 - The purists

  1. Most authorities accept using an apostrophe with single lower case letters:
    You should remember to mind your p's and q's ?
    It's time to dot the i's and cross the t's ?
    because ps and qs and is and ts could be confusing
  2. but not with capital letters:
    I've just bought three CDs (not CD's - here there is no possible confusion)
  3. and not with decades (but remember we can use the apostrophe of omission at the beginning):
    I love the music of the 1960s / the '60s (not 1960's or '60's)
  4. Many authorities don't like apostrophes with these - short words in lower case - but many writers still prefer to use them. So the jury is out on this one. See discussion below.

Discussion 2 - The moderates

Other authorities however, especially linguists, are not nearly so rigid about this whole area. Michael Swan in 'Practical English Usage simply says:'an apostrophe is sometimes used before the s in the plurals of abbreviations: MP's or MPs; CD's or CDs.' He also allows it in dates: 'It was in the early 1960's (or ... 1960s)'. And professor of linguistics, David Crystal, writing in the Guardian, had this to say:

Even the 19th-century printers (who tried to establish the possessive apostrophe rule) recognised that there were exceptions. They allowed a plural apostrophe after abbreviations (she has three MA's), numerals (he hit three 6's), and dates (in the 1990's). There is a tendency today to omit the apostrophe in some of these cases, but the alternative usage is still widely encountered. So here we have a raft of usages where we have to be tolerant of the plural apostrophe.

Even Lynne Truss, whose book on punctuation 'Eats, shoots and leaves', is subtitled 'The zero tolerance approach to punctuation', is surprisingly tolerant in this area. She quotes an old Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore joke about a sign where a letter 'R' has dropped off - his R's blew off - and allows it for the plurals of short words such as but's and and's. See discussion below about do's and don'ts

New evidence, however, suggests that in books at least, the terms CDs, MAs and 1960s are used far more than CD's, MA's and 1960's, so it might be worth listening to the purists there. (See Google NGram Viewer below)

Ex 7. Putting it all together - final punctuation exercise, but see below for some vocabulary exercises.

  1. Click on to load the words into the boxes for the first time.
  2. Keep checking as you go along.
  3. Add apostrophes where necessary, but nothing else.
  4. But on two occasions you will also have to add an 's'
  5. And on a few occasions you will need to take away an apostrophe, or change the position of an apostrophe.
  6. Use the strict (purist) rules regarding small words, abbreviations and decades.
  7. If you mess it up, click on one of the 'Check / Load' buttons to reload the text. The boxes you have got correct will be marked in green and won't be altered. But the whole box must be correct.
  8. If you want to start all over again, click on 'Load / Reload'.
Mary and David are both retired after having had successful careers in the City, . for business. start a new electronics business. in their family business is the culmination .

The in IT should help the business do well. Especially , although much of a salary for that year.

The elder son will take over , while his younger brother will be in charge of production.

will also be involved. . One is taking a job in . The other is looking after and marketing budget

will also be in on the act. .

And are to be included. also has a background in electronics, and the younger has a law degree, so the legal side.

on . Now all they have to do is to .

A little history: of the apostrophe, and of greengrocers

According to Crystal, the apostrophe was the last punctuation mark to enter English, and its rules only really became established in the nineteenth century, and even then there was still a lot of argument about its proper use. He also writes:

'Using an apostrophe in nouns which end in a vowel is something we find from the very moment apostrophes arrived in English, in the 16th century. We find them throughout Shakespeare's First Folio, in Dr Johnson's Dictionary, and right through to the present day.

When Britain started to see exotic foreign fruits and vegetables, shopkeepers began to use the apostrophe with the plurals of foreign words ending in a vowel, such as bananas, to avoid confusion. This usage therefore became known as the greengrocers' apostrophe, but it soon got a little out of hand, and spread to other plurals as well.

So is it dos and don'ts, or maybe do's and don'ts, or even do's and don't's?

I might as well admit that the title of this post is itself meant as a little bit of provocation. This expression is quite a common idiom meaning 'what you should do, and what you shouldn't do'. Here are the Google Search results for three ways of punctuating it:
  • "the dos and don'ts" - 6,420,000
  • "the do's and don'ts" - 5,400,000
  • "the do's and don't's" - 67,000

The last one, by the way, is Lynne Truss's favoured solution. Not only is it in a tiny minority on Google search, but Google commented: 'Did you mean to search for "the do's and don'ts"?' Now while I can see the consistency of having extra apostrophes in both words, this looks like 'an apostrophe too far' to me.
Ironically this puts her at odds with people like the distinctively non-prescriptive Professor Bryans at Common Errors in English, who says that an apostrophe in do's is unnecessary; not to mention the real prescriptivists. On the other hand there are enough people like David Crystal who notes:
Similarly, we find do's and don'ts, and many more [apostrophes with plurals]
to say that there is no real consensus, so in my opinion I have a choice, and dos looks distinctly strange to me, so I'll stick with do's and don'ts, Professor Bryans notwithstanding.

Google NGram Viewer

But suddenly it's got more interesting. In December Google released a program, developed by scientists at Harvard, which instantly tells you how often a word or phrase has occurred in the corpus of books they have digitised, or at least some of it.

And some fascinating social information it gives us, such as how and when the expression flight attendant has replaced air stewardess, or that the expression 'by jingo' (the source of the word jingoism), which I'd always associated with the First World War, was actually at a low in 1914, having had a huge peak in about 1870. The word jingoism itself, not surprsingly, crops up most often at times of war, most recently during and just after the Falklands / Malvinas 'conflict' (as the government of the day liked to call it).

Admittedly this program does not have the authority or the fine tuning available to users of, for example, the British National Corpus. But for normal mortals like me, it is incredibly easy to use, and also great fun.

So, back to do's and don'ts / dos and don'ts. The first graph is for British English, where dos without an apostrophe (in blue) just overtook my preferred version (in red) in the middle of the nineties.
But look at this. Despite most of those telling us not to use an apostrophe being American, in the American English corpus, it's the one with the apostrophe that's quite considerably in the lead, and the one without is even dropping a bit.
It's interesting that Lynne Truss's preferred version (in green) lies considerably below the other two in both views, and is on the decline.
So I may be wrong, but it looks as though I'm in good company. On the other hand, the same tool shows that CDs,MAs and 1960s are much preferred to CD's,MA's and 1960's. So better stick with the purists on that one.

And now here cometh the rant

Of apostrophe abuse and catastrophes and the like

At first I found websites that chronicled apostrophe 'abuse' quite amusing, but I have to confess I now find them rather sad. Fair enough if you want to keep an eye on professional writers who should know better, but most of the examples shown are just of ordinary shops, small businesses etc., and often of hand-written signs. Almost all concern the use of the apostrophe with plurals - the dreaded greengrocers' apostrophe.

And the examples of these so-called 'abuses' are often accompanied by snide comments of the 'we are so clever, and they are so stupid' variety. It's a kind of misplaced intellectual snobbery, but lacking in any intellectual content, for as far as I can see, none of these sites try in the slightest to understand the history of the apostrophe or why the problem with plurals (if it is in fact one) arose.

I suppose, in truth, they are as harmless as the errant apostrophes they photograph with such a mixture of indignant outrage and glee. But they do start to make trainspotting look like a worthwhile hobby in comparison.

A little perspective

Nobody was ever harmed by a misplaced apostrophe, nor does it usually have the slightest confusing effect on the reader.

Unlike the comma, where a dropped comma is said to have led to a war: the Jameson raid, a British military fiasco. This was in response to a message which had mysteriously lost a crucial comma, and is thought to have been a contributory factor to the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1879-1915). And British diplomat and Irish nationalist, Sir Roger Casement, is said to have been 'hanged on a comma'. At his 1916 trial, the judge's interpretation of an old law is said to have included adding in a comma at an appropriate place, conveniently making the law applicable to Casement. Apostrophes are much less dangerous.

Nor does somebody's incorrect (or correct, for that matter) use of the apostrophe say much about their general ability to use English. Go down to any London street market, and I dare say you'll find a fair quantity of misplaced apostrophes on the market stall signs, but then just listen to the patter of the traders who wrote those signs as they sell their wares. I guarantee you one of the richest language experiences of your life.

A damn sight richer than you'll find on any of those websites. But then it's always easier to point the finger at other people's mistakes, rather than to try and do something creative yourself. It's no doubt part of the current fail culture pervading the Internet. So schadenfreudian.

The Apostrophe Protection Society (APS)

Well, they do at least give you some rules, but they show their true colours on their 'FAQ' page:
  • Inanimate objects can't own anything

    The colour of the car, not the car's colour

    They're really out on a limb on this one; even the Chicago Manual of Style allows a car to 'have possessions'.
  • Is it of (possession) or for

    The APS says men's wear doesn't belong to men (it belongs to the shop), so we should use for.

    Clothing for men (so some department stores just opt for menswear instead).
  • 'Never, ever use an apostrophe with plurals', not even with ps and qs (even though nearly all authorities allow p's and q's). I wonder why they don't even mention dotting the is and crossing the ts (just see how strange that looks without apostrophes)
And especially on their 'More problems' page, where it advocates those old shibboleths: whom and fewer. But I think that's a subject for another post.

Practise the vocabulary from this posting


Unfortunately this post originally contained several instances of dont's, including in the title. I'm afraid the apostrophe wandered slightly, as these were supposed to be don'ts. My thanks go to ChrisB, a commenter at the forum Pain in the English, for pointing this out.


Apostrophes with inanimate objects

'Abuse' watchers

Do's and don'ts

  • Common Grammar Errors - OK, this nearly convinces me, but not quite.
  • USA Today They write 'do's and don'ts'
  • The Arrogant Polyglot Another rant, but arguing against my point of view.
    Forevermore, I shall scold all that attempt any form that departs from the very simple, very elegant Dos and Don'ts.
    I am duly scolded, for evermore. But that won't stop me writing it.

Professor David Crystal's approach to punctuation


The Google NGram Viewer, and what others are saying about it.

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