How to Use the Apostrophe in English Confidently [+Infographic]

How to Use the Apostrophe in English Confidently [+Infographic]

Types of Apostrophe

The apostrophe is a mark that, despite its tiny size, carries a lot of history on its back and can change the meaning of a sentence significantly. In this article I seek to provide a bird’s-eye view of its main usages in English writing. These include its role in forming contractions, pluralisation, and the possessive case.

What is an apostrophe?

Once you learn to read English, you become familiar with what the apostrophe looks like: a superscripted dot-like mark that occupies the same space as an “i” on the page and is not always easy to make sense of, especially for a new learner. Interestingly, it seems this lack of consensus on when and how the apostrophe is to be used is as old as the squiggly mark itself.

Where it comes from

It is said that the apostrophe was invented sometime in the early sixteenth century on the European Continent (as opposed to the British Isles) and then imported into the English language. That is why you find it in other Latin alphabets as well.

Typographic (green) and typewriter (red) apostrophe, followed by a prime (blue), between letters Í and í (using acute accent), in writing
Typographic (green) and typewriter (red) apostrophe, followed by a prime (blue), between letters Í and í (using acute accent), in different fonts


The punctuation mark vs the literary device

The apostrophe as a punctuation mark should not be confused with the literary device known by the same name. As a literary device, the apostrophe “is a direct and explicit address either to an absent person or to an abstract or nonhuman entity” (Abrams & Harpham 2012, p. 345). For instance, “Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fine lyric “Recollections of Love” (1817) is an apostrophe addressed to an absent woman; at the end of the poem, Coleridge, while speaking still to his beloved, turns by a sudden impulse to apostrophize also the River Greta” (ibid., p. 346).

1. Contractions

1.1. How to construct it

Perhaps the broadest usage of the apostrophe is in constructing contractions, i.e. when a longer word or phrase is shortened by dropping one or more consecutive letters (and spaces) and representing those omitted characters by an apostrophe. For example:

  1. “I am a doctor” becomes “I’m a doctor”

  2. “Her name is Mrs Sinclair” becomes “Her name’s Mrs Sinclair”

  3. “They are a pretty funny bunch” becomes “they’re a pretty funny bunch”

  4. “Let them know who is the boss” becomes “Let ’em know who’s the boss”

  5. “It is nice out here” becomes “It’s nice out here.”

  6. “She ope(ne)d her eyes and cried: it is he!” becomes, in archaic/literary texts, “she oped her eyes and cried: ’tis he!”

  7. “It was” becomes, in archaic/literary texts, “’twas.”

  8. “It has been a while since they last spoke” becomes “It’s been a while since they last spoke”

  9. “I shall be in London” becomes “I’ll be in London”

  10. “You will grow a rich man” becomes “You’ll grow a rich man”

  11. “I shall not want” becomes “I shan’t want” and

  12. “He will not be gone long” becomes “he won’t be gone long”

  13. “This cannot be true” becomes “this can’t be true”

  14. “He does not care” becomes “he doesn’t care” or, in non-standard— especially spoken—English, “he don’t care”

  15. “The market has not done poorly recently” becomes “The market hasn’t done poorly recently”

  16. “We have purchased a new house” becomes “We’ve purchased a new house”

  17. “She had not trimmed the trees in her garden” becomes “she’d not trimmed the trees in her garden” or “she hadn’t trimmed the trees in her garden”

  18. “He would ask questions all the time” becomes “he’d ask questions all the time”

  19. “Dare(d) not” becomes “daren’t.”

  20. “Old” can become, in archaic/literary texts, “ol’.”

  21. “How do/did” can become “how’d.”

  22. “Do you” can becomes “d’you/d’ye.”

  23. “Good morning” can become “g’morning.”

  24. “Because” can become “’cause.”

  25. “She would have found a way” can become “she’d’ve found a way”

  26. “ma’am” used to be “madam.”

  27. “Let’s” used to be “let us”

  28. “Will-o’-the-wisp” used to be “will-of-the-wisp”

  29. “4 o’clock” apparently used to be “4 of the clock”

  30. “Ne’er-do-well” used to be “never-do-well”

Contractions are of two general types: those contractions we choose to form from complete words, which are numbers 1 to 25 in the list above. I call these optional contractions. In contrast, there are those found in a dictionary; in other words, they are so established that most users do not even know what the original, uncontracted version might have looked like. I call this second category dictionary contractions, such as the last 5 items in the above list.

Dictionary contractions are usually considered formal as they are words with their own established dictionary entries whereas optional contractions are not to be used in formal writing, because they can convey a casual tone.

1.2. Typical mistakes

There are certain typical mistakes that occur with contractions.

  1. With pronouns “you” and “it,” care must be taken not to confuse their personal contracted forms “you’re” and “it’s” with “your” and “its,” which are the possessive pronouns of “you” and “it.”

  2. “It’s” can either be the contracted form of “it is” or “it has.” The clue lies in the verb form following it: if it is past participle, e.g. been, known, harvested, it must be “it has”; otherwise, “it is.”

  3. “You’d” can either be the contracted form of “you would” or “you had.” Again, the clue lies in the verb form following it: if it is an infinitive, e.g. be, know, harvest, then it must be “you would”; but if it is a past participle, e.g. been, known, harvested, then it must be “you had.”

  4. The contraction “amn’t” is no more considered standard. Instead, in statements you should simply use “am not” and not any contracted form; in questions, however, “aren’t” can be used to mean “am not,” as in “I’m a good boy, aren’t I?” The other way to pose the same question is, of course, staying away from any contraction and instead saying “I’m a good boy, am I not?”

2. Plurals

2.1. How to construct it

There are regular and irregular plurals in English. Setting aside irregular nouns by definition (even though there are still regularities in their vast range of variations), the first group are pluralised by adding an “s” to their end (except when the noun itself concludes in “s, x, z, ch, sh,” in which case “es” is usually added).

However, there are certain nouns that require an apostrophe to pluralise. Sometimes it helps with clarity if a word that is not normally pluralised is separated from the letter “s” by an apostrophe. This can include:

  1. Words other than nouns, e.g. “The do’s and don’t’s of chaperoning”

  2. Single letters (small or capital), e.g. “You should dot your i’s and cross your t’s”

  3. Abbreviations (which are basically a series of capital letters), e.g. “Nineteen MD’s were sent to the front line.”

  4. Decades, e.g. “The end of the 1910’s saw the controversial exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’.”

The last two cases are done either way, i.e. with or without an apostrophe. It is very much dependent on an author’s style even though the general inclination is towards the economy of language, which means dropping the apostrophe.

2.2. Typical mistakes

  1. Surnames should be pluralised without an apostrophe, e.g. “Keeping up with the Jonses is the key to so much evil.”

  2. The apostrophe after capital letters may be used optionally (unless too much ambiguity is introduced as a result), but it is not advisable to treat them so after small letters, e.g. “The As and Bs of business” vs “The as and bs of business” (the second example can be far more ambiguous and awkward than the first).

  3. If a decade is shortened to the last two digits, the second optional apostrophe should not stay, e.g. “The film is a nostalgic depiction of the ’50s.”

3. Possessives

3.1. How to construct it

The other usage of the apostrophe is when we want to create a relation of possession between a subject and the object to which it belongs. This is done by adding an apostrophe and ‘s’ to the subject which precedes the object, e.g. “Alfie’s homework is always a topic of conversation with his teachers.”

Traditionally, it is preferred to use the apostrophe-s to show a relation of possession between a person and whatever they own; if you want to show such a relation for a non-person subject, many authors and stylists still think it advisable to utilise the preposition ‘of’ rather than the apostrophe-s, e.g. “The author of the paper [preferably not paper’s author] is a celebrated professor.” (However, this is now for the most part superseded by an undifferentiated approach where both person and non-person subjects can take on the apostrophe-s.)

In regular plurals, to form a possessive, we add an apostrophe after the “(e)s,” e.g. “We went to the Smiths’ summer villa.”

3.2. Typical mistakes

  1. Many stylists still regard the apostrophe-s only appropriate to show a relation of possession for people. Therefore, it is stylistically advisable to utilise ‘of’ when this is not the case unless other considerations come into play, e.g. that preposition has been used so repeatedly in close proximity that we want to introduce some variety.

  2. If a singular subject ends in ‘s’, only add an apostrophe without the ‘s’. However, similar to the previous point, this is not an outright mistake, and in certain styles it is permissible to use the apostrophe-s, e.g. “Mr Simons’ Foundation” or “Mr Simons’s Foundation”

  3. If a plural noun (including proper nouns, such as in a surname used in the plural to talk about a family, e.g. “the Abdul-Jabbars”) ending in ‘s’ is used as the subject and you want to opt for the apostrophe-s, you must only add an apostrophe without the ‘s’, e.g. “Ladies’ night”

  4. If a singular countable word ends in “y,” its singular possessive is “-y’s” and its plural possessive “-ies’,” e.g. “Harvard University’s PhD programme” vs “British universities’ different educational system”

4. Other usages

There are some other, rather limited usages of the apostrophe in English writing: one is in certain Irish surnames where the combination of “O” and the apostrophe are in fact a distorted representation of Ó, e.g. “Turlough O’Carolan, Seán T. O’Kelly”

Another is as a foreign letter symbol when transliterating certain languages. For instance, the apostrophe is used in place of two distinct (though fairly similar-sounding) letters in Arabic: the “left single quotation mark” and, its inverted form, the “left single quotation mark,” which are variations upon the apostrophe.

Why apostrophes matter

The apostrophe matters because distinguishing between its different types and using each one correctly and appropriately goes a long way to not only validate a writer’s literacy in the eyes of their readers but also, more importantly, disambiguate written communication. As BBC wrote recently, “A new holiday in Ghana—Founders’ Day—incited heated debate this year over the nation’s history, focused squarely on the placement of punctuation.” The debate centred around “[w]hether the country should honour a singular founder (Founder’s Day) or a group (Founders’ Day).”

As Roslyn Petelin, an Australian writing professor, observes, misplacing a mark “can distort truth”—as simple as that. It is no surprise then that some like her have defended the apostrophe as “the 27th letter of the alphabet,” because “[i]ts correct use avoids bewilderment, confusion, consternation, and irritation to readers who know and love the apostrophe.”


Infographic: How to Use the Apostrophe in English Confidently
Infographic: How to Use the Apostrophe in English Confidently

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