Society & Culture & Entertainment Writing

Apostrophes: Random, Rampant and Wrong

Wherever you look, especially on the Internet, you will find examples of the misuse of apostrophes.
The most common mistake is to insert an apostrophe before the letter 's' in a plural word.
But apostrophes used to show contraction and possession are often misplaced, even where they are needed.
Should you care? It depends on your audience.
Some people will not notice.
Most will: they may not be clear about what is wrong, but they will know that something is, and mark you down as ignorant.
And that is not a good way to attract readers of your deathless prose.
But the most important reason for being careful with apostrophes is that a large part of your audience -- at least a third of internet users reading pages in English, probably more -- are not native speakers of English.
Very few languages other than English use apostrophes at all, yet our language would be truly stilted and formal if we did not use them at all.
I have deliberately avoided them so far in this article, and it certainly sounds a bit wooden in places to me! It is so easy to use apostrophes correctly, once you know the basic, simple rules, and those simple changes will make your pages much more friendly to all your readers.
Apostrophes in plural words Mistakes of this kind are so common that you may not need to see examples, but here are a couple I've seen recently:
  • "Antique's for sale" as an AdWords headline
  • "24-year-old kid astounds the guru's with his amazing scheme"
The reason people make this mistake is that they get confused between plural words and the use of the apostrophe 's' to show possession.
You don't need an apostrophe just because the word ends in "s" -- only if the "s" shows ownership.
Apostrophes to show possession I've never seen another language that uses the apostrophe in this way, and it certainly strikes most non-native English speakers as very strange.
Most languages use another form, which we would translate as "the book of the boy" where we would say "the boy's book".
Other languages use the form "the boy his book", and that, of course, is where our approach comes from: "boy his" has been contracted to "boy's".
It's actually pretty easy to tell whether you need an apostrophe in this situation or not.
Just ask yourself: what is missing from the word with the apostrophe? So "the tree's leaves were falling" is correct, because you couldn't (nowadays) say "the tree its leaves", so you have to show possession some other way.
But in the phrase "the trees are turning brown", the word "trees" does not need an apostrophe, because there is nothing missing: the "s" in "trees" shows that there is more than one tree, not that the tree owns anything.
Apostrophes that show contraction We should never, nowadays, say or write "the boy his book".
But there are plenty of modern examples of apostrophes showing contraction:
  • "I've" for "I have"
  • "don't" for "do not"
  • "the party's over" for "the party is over"
  • for a dialect example, try "d'rectly" -- a contraction of "directly" used in my part of the world to mean something like manana, but not so fast...
A few other languages do use this form of apostrophe, notably French: for example je t'aime, which would otherwise be written je te aime, and the two vowels together would sound very awkward.
But the rules about when to contract or elide two words are very strict, and well- known -- there's nothing like the cheerful anarchy of English! Apostrophes used in possessive pronouns I've left this one until last, because the difference between "it's" and "its" is the really tough nut.
Even native English speakers find it difficult, and the international audience finds it really hard.
Because of this, and also because very few languages have a neuter pronoun (even a computer is masculine in French...
), I try to avoid "its" and "it's" altogether when there's a chance my audience might include people for whom English is not their mother tongue.
But sometimes you have little choice, and fortunately there is another golden rule here.
If you can replace the apostrophe with a letter, and the sentencestill makes sense, as in "it's a fine day" which can become "it is a fine day", then you need an apostrophe.
If "its"is the possessive pronoun, as in "the tree has lost its leaves", then you must not use an apostrophe.
Simple, really...

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