Posted 26. Mai 2011on:
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:
- Use to replace missing letters in contractions:
- will not becomes won’t
- do not becomes don’t
- he is becomes he’s
- Use to indicate possession:
- Ellen’s brother
- My mother’s car
- The children’s books
- Use for the plurals of lower case letters:
- There are two i’s and two o’s in ‘dignotion’
- 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:
- When she moved house, Chloe realised that she had 45 CDs, 200 DVDs and 3 VCRs.
- In his exams he got 4 As, 3 Bs and 5 Cs.
- 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: