Posted on: 26. Mai 2011

Small? Yes. Insignificant? Certainly not. Apostrophes have a very important role in written language and can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Unfortunately, many people find the apostrophe so confusing that they either miss them out completely or panic and put them everywhere.

I’m not pretending to be an expert on the fine art of punctuation, my formal English Language education finished at GCSE-level when I was 16. However, that was enough to give me a good grasp of  how to use an apostrophe and also, I must admit, to begin my transformation into a punctuation pedant. It’s still early days but give me another 20 years and I’ll be correcting supermarket signs with a permanent marker / Tipp-Ex with the best of them! At least I won’t be alone in my quest, research for this article led me to discover the existence of The Apostrophe Protection Society, an official organisation based in the UK.

The many websites I found dedicated to ending apostrophe abuse, along with  a few sporadic lessons from my English teachers, have helped me to split the use of apostrophes into three simple categories:

  1. Use to replace missing letters in contractions:
    1. will not becomes won’t
    2. do not becomes don’t
    3. he is becomes he’s
  2. Use to indicate possession:
    1. Ellen’s brother
    2. My mother’s car
    3. The children’s books
  3. Use for the plurals of lower case letters:
    1. There are two i’s and two o’s in ‘dignotion’
    2. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s

I had never really thought about the third rule before I started reading lots of grammar websites, but it stops the plurals of lower case letters being read as other words. For example, without any apostrophes in 3a, we would have the complete words ‘is’ and ‘os’ instead of the plurals of the letters. For upper case letters, numbers and acronyms, however, apostrophes are not necessary:

  1. When she moved house, Chloe realised that she had 45 CDs, 200 DVDs and 3 VCRs.
  2. In his exams he got 4 As, 3 Bs and 5 Cs.
  3. The tradition began in the 1900s.

For some people, using an apostrophe correctly is as natural as breathing; for others it requires a bit more effort. I’m sure that even those who have mastered it sometimes stop, look at what they’ve written and think, “Hmm, is that right?”.

Among the dozens of newspaper articles I’ve read about apostrophes – some begging for it to be used properly, some calling for it to be scrapped – this light-hearted article from 1994 is my favourite:

Bis bald


2 Antworten to "Apostrophes"

An interesting topic alright. I find I’m much more laissez-faire about such things, and in my experience most people manage to deal with your first two points most of the time. Probably the biggest sticky point people have is with the words its/it’s, since that possessive ’s rule has your hand aching to draw in an apostrophe.

Also curious that there seems to be a limit to using a single apostrophe in a word. Once upon a time you might find contractions like shall not written sha’n’t or cannot as ca’n’t, but no more.

It leads to an interesting game of pronunciation with some people too, when you start introducing words ending in s or plurals. No doubt you can tell a great deal about a person’s upbringing from listening to them pronounce words like James‘, Jameses and Jameses‘!

Incidentally, here’s a nice old post from Bastian Sick bemoaning die vier Reiter des Apostrophs.

Yes, I agree that most people can deal with the first two most of the time, I find that the most problems occur when people feel the need to use them to form plurals or even verb conjugations (or rather: when someone use’s them to form plural’s – I see this on a shockingly regular basis!). Its/it’s is a very common problem, along with: their/ they’re/ there and your/ you’re – although this is also to do with spelling and knowing the differences between the words.

I find your point about pronunciation very interesting. I have no problem writing those names correctly or understanding the differences, but I expect my pronunciation would out me as a commoner! I would pronounce the first two in the same way, and then the last one would end in „zuzuz“…

Thanks for the link, it’s nice to know that it doesn’t just affect the English language!

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