The apostrophe. Often misused and maligned, but here to stay. For now.
What is this little piece of punctuation used for? Only three things. It’s actually pretty simple:
(1) an apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter.
The primary example here is contractions. As examples, “you are not” becomes “you aren’t”, and “he is not” becomes “he isn’t”.
What about a contraction for “I am not”? Why are we missing the first person singular? Actually, it is not missing, just forgotten: ain’t. For some reason, ain’t has devolved to become improper English while all the other contractions have survived… including shan’t, of all things. It just ain’t right.
In English, contractions are a contradiction. Written language is generally modified to fit spoken language, because people read aloud in their heads. Why else would you write “an” instead of “a” before a vowel?
So why is it that contractions are used constantly in spoken language, to the extent that not using them makes you sound stuffy — but contractions are considered improper when written? That is starting to change… I mean… that’s starting to change.
Similarly, the apostrophe is used to indicate regional speech. Where would Eliza Doolittle be without “all I want is ‘Enry ‘Iggins’ ‘ead”, or Bob and Doug McKenzie without “How’s it goin’, eh?” And let’s not forget the ubiquitous and universally applicable Southernism — y’all.
Unfortunately, as the language continues to devolve through the influence of texting, the apostrophe-s is becoming a ‘z’. For example, “Where’s the beef?” has become “Yo grrlz wherez the lolz?”
(2) an apostrophe indicates possession.
This is a shortcut that doesn’t exist in many languages, and is actually pretty handy.
For example, if you want to say “this is Bob’s blog” in French, you must use the roundabout “this is the blog of Bob”. You can say that in English too, of course, but why would you?
Use of an apostrophe in this way is a leftover from the ancient Saxon (Germanic) influence on English. Danke Vortigern!
There is a weirdness here. If whatever you are pluralizing already ends in “s”, you don’t add another one, such as “my parents’ house”. Else it would look weird.
There is an even bigger weirdness that occurs when possession conflicts with contraction. There is only one case of this in the English language, as far as I know. It’s it’s.
People screw this up constantly, not just in emails and blogs but in big expensive things like signs and menus. Seriously, the rule is really simple:
- if it’s a contraction, use the apostrophe. For example, “it’s a contraction”.
- if you are showing possession, don’t use the apostrophe. For example, “remember to subscribe to my blog so you won’t miss its fascinating facts and perspicacious prose”.
(3) use an apostrophe to pluralize lowercase letters.
This is a strange one, which comes about for clarity. For example, if you write “the word kerbopple has two ps in it” this would make people try to spell it “kerbopspsle” or something.
So you write “the word kerbopple has two p’s in it” and the meaning is clear.
This practice has also survived in the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s”. If you wrote “mind your ps and qs” it would change the meaning entirely. So, um… mind your p’s and q’s.
Note that people used to use an apostrophe to pluralize uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols as well. This practice has mostly disappeared but it’s still a grey area.
For example, you can write “I love the 80s” or “I love the 80’s” and no one will complain. However if you write “I just bought two iPod 5’s” you will look so 2000’s.
This is similar to the grocer’s comma, or more correctly, the grocer’s apostrophe (though in this context being correct is missing the point). It got its name by the greengrocer’s habit of using an apostrophe when they want to indicate a plural, e.g. “fresh tomato’s” or “banana’s by the pound”.
Personally, I have never seen that in my local grocery store, but I have seen it in many other place’s. I mean, places. It drive’s me bonker’s.
Wait! You say. What about the use of apostrophes to indicate speech, or to set off words for ’emphasis’? Well, technically those are not apostrophes, they are quotation marks. Different animal entirely. The fact they often look the same is purely because of limitations of font.
Bonus fact: did you know apostrophe can also mean “the rhetorical address of a usually absent person or personified thing“, as in: “O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!” Me neither. It smacks of Shakespeare.
Strangely, this meaning doesn’t appear to be related at all to the punctuation mark. O English, thou art a fascinating subject!
Bonus the second: there is (was?) a movement to remove the apostrophe from the English language. It was once led by the great author George Bernard Shaw, who hated the thing. What would he think of the grocer’s comma? Then again, there are some people who love the apostrophe. Who knew punctuation could be so divisive?
Which side do you fall on? Personally, I dig the apostrophe, but I’m a language nerd / nazi (and proud of it).