I seem to have an obsession with apostrophes. It seems that so many people know that apostrophes exist, but cannot quite remember which way they work, so leave them out altogether, or put them in whenever they think they might belong.
So glad you started with posessions, nosugerfneb – I’ve been composing this post over about three extremely hectic weeks, so it’s as well that you got started. I won’t change this, however, because it looks at the whole issue in a different light…..
The one that has me laughing, (not hurling! but maybe laughing hysterically (?)) is the local fruit shop advertising apple’s for $6.95 a kilo. I thought this was just me, but see below, it seems to be an age old problem.
Anyway, I put together my thoughts and a few researched clarifications.
Apostrophes are used for three purposes
To show possession
e.g. the boy’s football = the football of the boy
This is a useful exercise to use to see if possession is involved – see if you can turn the words into a phrase, with the word “of” in it. (until I tried it with the apples! … Apple’s $6.50 a kilo – and the phrase would be “$6.50 a kilo of the apples”) My suggestion is that if the thing after the s belongs to thing before the s, then use a possessive apostrophe
Exceptions occur if the thing that is owned is an object, a piece of furniture or a building
e.g. the church steeple and not the church’s steeple
the chair leg and not the chair’s leg
the apple core and not the apple’s core
And on the subject of apples, my example was a plural, so if the apples owned something, the apostrophe needed to go after the s.
The colour of the apples would be “the apples’ colour”.
The horses’ manes
The boys’ footballs
If the plural had been a word that does not end in s, then we would put the apostrophe before the s
e.g. the children’s bus
and there are some more excellent examples at the post I mentioned earlier
If the word ends in s but is not a plural, generally you can add ‘s Mr. Jones’s house
The boss’s office
If in doubt about this one, write what you and your reader would say, and keep it consistent.
To indicate that letters have been omitted
e.g. can’t = cannot
and the apostrophe shows that letters between the n and the t have been omitted – This is a contraction. Or a word can be abbreviated with an apostrophe
e.g. gov’t for government
In plurals of lower case letters
e.g. a’s and b’s
Apostrophes Matter I just had to share these from Wikipedia (which incidentally has a comprehensive article on apostrophes)
To illustrate that possessive apostrophes matter, and that their usage affects the meaning of written English, consider these four phrases (listed in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct), each of which has a meaning distinct from the others: my sister’s friend’s investments my sisters’ friends’ investments my sisters’ friend’s investments my sister’s friends’ investments Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with: “Those things over there are my husbands.”
Greengrocers’ Apostrophes I thought it was just me. Wikipedia tells me, however, that this is an identified phenomenon …
Apostrophes used incorrectly to form plurals are known as greengrocers’ apostrophes (or grocers’ apostrophes, or sometimes humorously greengrocers apostrophe’s). Read more at the article there.
I also acknowledge the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University for their excellent pages that simplify the ins and outs of apostrophes so well. They offer interactive apostrophe exercise one and apostrophe exercise two. Enjoy your play time there!