Apostrophe catastrophe

By January 15, 2017English usage

When you consider how much more difficult it was to get an education when I was a kid (you had to look up books to find out stuff), it is annoying that I can spell, as well as construct and punctuate sentences with relative ease, while many people, not just the younger generation, find these processes almost impossible to negotiate successfully.

One aspect of this, which constantly annoys me, is people’s inability to cope with apostrophes. These look simple enough, as they are basically a dot with a tail below it, and when used they are placed at about the top of lower case letters in a sentence. This is how they are used.

The Possessive Case

They are used to indicate the possessive case. This is where an item is ‘owned’ by a person or another item. For instance: If Joan owns a house, it is Joan’s house. The ‘s is used to show that it is Joan that owns the house. Similarly, if a briefcase has a handle, it is the briefcase’s handle.

There are a couple of complications, however. If the ‘owner’ has a name that ends in an s, then it is usual to just insert the apostrophe after the name, while leaving off the s. For instance: If my boss has a cat, it is not my boss’s cat, but my boss’ cat.

Also, if several people own something, then the plural noun is used. Often in English a plural noun is constructed by adding s or es to the end of a word. For instance. If a boy goes for a night out it is that boy’s night out, but if two boys are going for a night out, it is the boys’ night out. Here, the word doing the possessing is plural, because there are two boys, and as above we do not add an ‘s’ after the apostrophe.


Another common use of apostrophes is in contractions. These are commonly used in English, aren’t they? That word, aren’t, is a contraction of two words are and not. What I said was: These are commonly used in English are not they? Other contractions are it’s (e.g. it’s going to rain), which is a contraction of the words it and is. Others are can’t (can not), wouldn’t (would not), you’ll (you will), you’d (you should or you would), shouldn’t (should not), shan’t (shall not).

One other complication is that, because it’s is a contraction, when you are dealing with something that is owned by the it concerned, you would expect it to be it’s, but to avoid confusion, the possessive case of it dispenses with the apostrophe. For instance, if you are referring to a cat’s basket, you use its basket.

No apostrophe required

You DO NOT use an apostrophe to create a plural. If you have two cats and you refer to them as our cat’s, you are a moron. If you sometimes say: that house is our’s, English is clearly not your strong suit, and you should pretend you cannot write because of some infirmity.

If you are a scientist and in reference to the work of others, you do not say: Smith et al’s (1990) work. This clearly demonstrates, that you should do something else with your life. Become a priest, or a rugby player, or a politician (people need a laugh). The correct way to refer to this work is: the work of Smith et al. (1990).

There are numerous other unusual odd uses of apostrophes which are too numerous to list here. So, if you want to be full bottle on all the vagaries of the apostrophe’s usage (possessive case!), then check out:





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