When do I really need an apostrophe?

“If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.”   Doug Larson

The apostrophe, a small punctuation mark that looks like a comma suspended near the top of letters, causes many writers problems—no matter their education level or writing experience.

R.L. Trask in The Penguin Guide to Punctuation calls it “the most troublesome punctuation mark in English,” “often misused” and causing “much bewilderment.” This is the last punctuation mark from the list of the Top Twenty errors that we will be considering in this space.

As an error in student writing, unnecessary or missing or misplaced apostrophes occurs on both the 1986 and the 2006 lists, though at different ranks: dropping from error #9 in the earlier study to error #14 in the later one. Another difference is the inclusion in the later list of mistaking its and it’s; in the Twenty Most Common Errors list, this confusion had its own rank, albeit the last or 20th error. (In 2006, it is included with unnecessary or missing apostrophes.)

As with other punctuation marks, the apostrophe is used in writing, not in speech. We don’t sprinkle our speaking with apostrophes or commas or exclamation points, though some use pauses or changes in intonation as a guide to inserting punctuation when transcribing speech to a written form. (As discussed in a previous blog, LeTourneau has remarked that using punctuation to transcribe intonation patterns was practiced more consistently in the eighteenth century than it is now. English Grammar 480)

The apostrophe is also a relatively new invention, appearing in the 1500s to indicate a contraction and in the 1600s to indicate possession, according to Simon Horobin in the OxfordDictionaries.com blog. These are the two main uses of the apostrophe: showing possession or showing contraction (where a letter or letters have been left out).

As with many rules of grammar and punctuation, the use of the apostrophe seems quite straightforward:

to show possession, add ‘s  to singular nouns, both common and proper:

Bob’s friend                       the farm’s produce

This rule also applies to indefinite pronouns:

someone’s book                              everyone’s vote

The personal pronoun it does not form a possessive with an apostrophe, only with the s:  The car lost its breaks.

It is the third person singular pronoun used for things. A helpful rule is that personal pronouns have no apostrophes in their possessive forms.

Consider the following chart:
















Using an apostrophe to show possession with plural nouns depends on whether the noun ends in an -s or not.

For plural nouns not ending in –s, add an apostrophe and –s:

The women’s movement is often divided into two phases: late 1800s and late 1900s.

Robert Bly helped to popularize the men’s movement.

(Notice that these nouns are irregular plurals, nouns that become plural by changing its spelling in other ways than adding an “s.”)

To make regular plural nouns possessive, add only the apostrophe:

the cats’ tails                      the students’ complaints

As Lunsford writes, “The little apostrophe can sometimes make a big difference in meaning. If you saw a note on a vacationing friend’s refrigerator asking you to put out the cat’s food, how many cats would you expect to be feeding? One, of course, and so you’d put out enough food for one cat. If your friend had slipped up with that apostrophe, however, and meant cats’ instead of cat’s — well, there would be some hungry cats around” (Easy Writer 114-115).

Horobin writes of another apostrophe catastrophe, different from the ones in the quote from Lunsford and the quote from Doug Larson leading this discussion. A county in Britain had decided to drop the use of the apostrophe in its road signs, not unlike some retailers who dropped the apostrophe from their names, and this move met with an uproar. As with other punctuation marks, especially the comma, less is becoming more, and the apostrophe has been dropped from many plurals and contractions over time: Hallowe’en (itself a shortening of All Hallows Even) becoming Halloween, e-mail(short for electronic mail) becoming email.

This brings up the other common use of apostrophe which is to form contractions.

Contractions are two word combinations formed by leaving out certain letters which are replaced by an apostrophe. Some common contractions include

cannot = can’t

will not = won’t

I would, I had = I’d

it is, it has = it’s

Click Me

to read what Horobin says about the approach of GB Shaw vs Lewis Carroll on the use of apostrophe.  

While contractions are common in speech and informal writing, they are generally discouraged in formal prose, including most business and academic publications. However, as Kolln notes, contractions are useful because they can affect the rhythm of sentences, which can reflect a writer’s voice.

Click Me

to read a passage about cats (!) quoted by Kolln to show the contributions to sentence rhythm that contractions make by eliminating or greatly diminishing extra syllables. 

Kolln gives examples of frequently occurring contractions:

with negativescan’t, don’t, won’t, couldn’t, doesn’t, isn’t

with the auxiliary verbs

have, had, will, is, am, and are

I’d, she’ll, they’re, we’ve, he’s, it’s
with forms of be when functioning as the main verbYou’re happy. I’m sad.

with it and there

the contracted form of is is especially common

It’s a nice day today.

There’s a storm due tomorrow.

And so, we return to the focus on its vs it’s, which warranted its own place on the 1986 list of errors.

Kolln calls the mistake of using it’s for its the “unwanted apostrophe” –  “perhaps the most common writing error of all – and not just among students” (238). And for some, this error arouses some very strong emotions. Consider Lynne Truss, author of the popular Eats, Shots and Leaves, who is adamant about the importance of “proper” punctuation and usage in all things, not the least the use of its vs. it’s: “If you persist in writing “Good food at it’s best,” you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave” (44)

Perhaps this threat alone will answer your question of when you really need an apostrophe.

(Information and examples adapted from Lunsford (Easy Writer), Kolln (Rhetorical Grammar), and Horobin OxfordDictionary.com blog.)

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