Ugh, you may groan. A blog post about punctuation? And not just punctuation in general but a post about just one punctuation mark in particular: the apostrophe? Boooooring.
Only it’s not true. In addition to being so often misused and abused – or, actually, because it’s so often misused and abused – the apostrophe can be controversial, rage-inducing, profane or even funny (though, admittedly, generally in the grammar-scold-humour sense).
Greengrocers (produce sellers, to the Yanks out there), for instance, seem to have long been Public Enemy No. 1 when the crime is apostrophe abuse. All those hand-lettered store signs about “fresh apple’s”, “new potatoe’s” and “ripe tomatoe’s” really infuriate some grammatical sticklers. They’ve even led to the creation of a trade-specific term (“greengrocer’s apostrophe”) and inspired a small multitude of wry buttons, stickers and notecards. (They include one with the message: “Grammar. The difference between feeling your nuts and feeling you’re nuts.”)
Rule No. 1: Whether you’re talking vegetables or decades, apostrophes do not turn singular items into plurals. Contrary to a classic 1985 ‘Mr. Language Person’ column by American humour writer Dave Barry, an apostrophe is not meant to “alert the reader that an ‘s’ is coming up at the end of the word”.
Apostrophes do indicate contractions, although not in the way Barry described in another column in which he used the example: “This childbirth really hurt’s!” Instead, they are used in expressions like “do not” minus the “o” (“don’t”) or “Andrea is busy” minus the “i” (“Andrea’s busy”).
According to writer Simon Griffin’s 2016 book, Fucking Apostrophes, the practice of using the punctuation in this way can be traced back to a 15th-century French printer named Geoffroy Tory, who presumably wanted to save time or sometimes came up short on letters during a printing job. In fact, Griffin writes: “Most people generally agree that fucking apostrophes come from the Greek hē apóstrophos, meaning a turning away or an elision (the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking).”
(Apostrophes, though, don’t cost money, so poverty is no excuse for leaving them out… as Al Copeland, the late founder of the Popeyes restaurant chain, used to joke in explaining his business’ lack of an apostrophe.)
Rule No. 2: Apostrophes are used in a variety of situations where letters are left out. These include contractions (“couldn’t”) and omissions (as in “’80s” for “1980s”).
As Griffin notes in his book, there are exceptions to these rules that can make things confusing… something he found difficult to explain to designers in his work as a copywriter. That’s the reason he wrote the book in the first place, he told ABC Radio Perth last November: “[T]he more I tried to explain to them, the more I found myself going in circles. There would always be an exception to every rule I tried to tell them.”
This is especially the case in another situation where apostrophes are used: to indicate possession. When something belongs to Claire, for instance, we say it’s “Claire’s”. But it gets a little trickier for plural subjects, where the apostrophe is typically used without the following “s” (i.e., “the boys’ model cars” or “The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish”). And then there’s the exception for something that belongs to “it”, which doesn’t use an apostrophe at all (i.e., “Here’s my trophy and this is its case.”)
Rule No. 3: An apostrophe followed by an “s” is used to indicate possession but when the subject itself is plural or ends in “s”, an apostrophe alone often does the trick (i.e., “the Gross’ car”. Though there are exceptions, such as “St. James’s station” on the London Underground).
Finally, remember that languages are living things and – like other living things – they evolve and their rules change. Technology and the pace of change today can sometimes help speed that process up, which means that acceptable uses or omissions of apostrophes can change as well. As Griffin points out, apostrophes don’t work in URLs or Twitter hashtags, so they’re increasingly being left out in names or phrases that appear online often.
“Mistakes will always be made,” he writes at the close of his book. “My advice is simply to apologise and politely point out to the person correcting you that apostrophes aren’t as fucking simple as they might think they are.”
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