Tuesday, 15 May 2012

English Language - The Apostrophe

Right you horrible lot.  Sit down Jones, Lunchtime isn’t for another ten minutes, and then it’ll be detention for you laddie.

Oh, you caught me there, sorry.

Today’s lesson in ‘How to rite prober’ is on the Apostrophe and when best to use, when to abuse, and when it’s better not to inflict it at all.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably – then we shall begin.

When is the Apostrophe used?

Quite simply, the Apostrophe can be used in one of four instances.
  1. To indicate the possessive.
  2. To indicate missing letters.
  3. In an expression such as five years' misery
  4. To show the plural of an abbreviation.
Use of an apostrophe in any other situation is simply wrong - so don't do it.

To indicate the possessive.

You’re probably already going “Say what?”  The Possessive is when an article belongs to someone, or something. This is normally done by adding an apposrophe with a 's' following it.
  • Beethoven's music is better than it sounds.
  • Never play around with another man's wife.
  • The Queen's crown was found in your possession.
  • My sister's baby was making such a racket so I shot it.
You will notice that when the Possessor is singular, then the apostrophe appears before the s. When the possessor is a plural, then the apostrophe comes after the s.
  • My Fault!!!  Never, it was my parents' responsibility.
  • The Prime Minister was elected mainly because of the old folk's vote.
 So, to summarise:
  • Dog's dinner (one dog, one breakfast)
  • Dog's dinners (one dog, several dinners)
  • Dogs' dinner (several dogs, one dinner)
  • Dogs' dinners (several dogs, several dinners)
Easy so far isn't it.  You're probably wondering what all the fuss is about.  Well, hold on, it gets more complicated.

Exceptions to the rule:

Plurals which do not end with the letter s.

Plural words which do not end with the letter s (e.g. men, people, children) will have the apostrophe before the s.

Single nouns ending with the letter s.

Such words (e.g. Charles, Wales, Paris and Dickens) will have possession showed by ending ' or 's.
  • It is Charles' birthday.  It is Charles's birthday. (Both are correct)
As both forms are gramatically correct, you should use the version that you are most likely to speak it.  Use Charles's if you would pronounce it "Charlesiz", or Charles' if you pronounce it as "Charles."

Compound Nouns.

Some compound nouns (e.g. brother-in-law) do not form their plurals by adding the s at the end.  Instead, the s is added to the principal word (e.g. brothers-in-law). However, when possession is to be shown, the 's is added to the end, regardless of whether it is singular, or plural.
  • brother-in-law's house.  brothers-in-law's house.
  • colonel-in-chief's departure.  colonels-in-chief's departure.
  • maid of honour's bouquet.  maids of honour's bouquet.
All of the above are correct.

Apostrophes with Joint Ownership

Yes, another exception, but the final one.  Joint ownership is shown by making the last word in the series possessive.  Indivdual ownership s making both (or all) parts possessive.

A joint ownership example
  • Stephen and Robert's toys.
 An individual ownership example
  • Stephen's and Robert's toys.

If you were to have
  • India and Pakistan's problems (then the problems are common to both)
  • India's and Pkistan's problems (then the problems are separate from each other)
 Oh, and one last thing.  It's has nothing to do with possession, although given what has just been said, you would be mistaken for thinking so, but you would be wrong.

It's is actually short for it is or it has.  Its (without the apostrophe) would be used for possession.

To indicate missing letters in the middle of words or phrases.

Apostrophes are used to replace letters and is a sign of how many people speak.
  • You can't have that.
  • Don't do it!
  • I'd like a punch in the face, please.
  • We'd better scarper.
But guess what, we don't always use apostrophes when letters are missing. For example:
  • 15, Elm Rd.
  • St Matthew Passion
  • Photo is short for photograph.
  • It is easier to say CD than Compact Disc.
And in the cases where you wouldn't use an apostrophe in the singular, you don't need to use it for the plural:
  • I had one photo.
  • They had two photos.
  • We sell CDs and DVDs.
  • I was born in the 1960s.
But we do say this CD's broken because it's a short form of this CD is broken. (confused yet???  - oh, you will be)

In Time Expressions.

In time expressions (also known as temporal expressions) the apostrophe appears before the s for a singular unit of time, but after for more than one.
  • I never did a day's work in my life.
  • Give me a year's pay and I will think about it.
  • There is six months' interest-free credit on this spondolick.
These are also time expressions, but some relate to value and distance as well.
  • 10 dollars' worth of mint humbugs and 3 dollars' worth of  jelly babies.
  • a stone's throw away.

However, there are some time expressions where an apostrophe is not required.

  • She has ten years left on her prison sentence.
  • He knew that it was only five minutes before the bomb went off.

In case of confusion, only use an apostrohe in an expression where the word of might have been used.
  • six months' nsurance (six months of insurance)
  • one years's pay (a year of pay)

The Plural of abbreviations.

Now, if ever there was a subject for heated discussion amoung grammarians, then this is the place to be.  The plurals of abbreviations, letters and numbers all can be shown by the use of an apostrophe.

However, there is the view that apostrophes should never be used to show plurals.  Well, tough-titty, say I.  If it helps us illiterates out, then let's use it.
  • He sent SOS's from the stricken ship.
  • There are two a's in accommodation.
  • 1000's of bargains
Now, as we aleady know, the apostrophe is also used to show possession. But what about the following example.
  • MP's plan failure.
Is this about MPs planning to fail, or the failure of an MP's plan?

The use of the apostrophe in showing a plural should only be used if it will help the reader to understand.  In most cases however, you should form the plural by simply adding just the s.

Where do I put the Apostrophe?

Childrens' shoes or children's shoes?

Well, good question there Smartypants, the apostrophe goes directly after the thing doing the possessing so:
  • The sun's rays = the rays of the sun.
  • The cat's leg = the leg of the cat.
  • The king's palace = the palace of the king.
  • The kings' palace = the palace of the kings.
  • The men's shirts = the shirts of the men.
  • Children's T-shirts = T-shirts of children.
  • The people's princess = the princess of the people.
  • The American peoples' inheritance = the inheritance of the American peoples.
  • My mother's photo = photo of my mother.
  • One week's notice = notice of one week.
  • Two weeks' notice = notice of two weeks.
  • Three years' experience  = experience of three years.
  • Everyone's help  = help of everyone.
The possessive is much a looser concept than ownership: the girls may not own the school, but it's still a girls' school.
No Apostrophe?

The apostrophe is used to show a connection between two things. If a dog has a bone, then it's the dog's bone. But sometimes there is no possessive connection.

Sometimes the relationship is adjectival, not possessive:
  • Accounts department
  • Sports car
Ok, hold on, Let me explain.

The accounts don't have the department, and neither does the sports have a car – it's a department of type "accounts", and a car of type "sports". 
I could just as well have written:
  • Marketing department
  • Two-door car
A department of type "marketing" and a car of type "two-door". Both are clearly not possessive.

Sometimes there's no thing to possess or be possessed:
  • Twelve weeks pregnant
There's no such thing as a "pregnant", and the twelve weeks can't have one, so the phrase is not possessive.

We could say twelve weeks' notice and two years' experience, because there are such things as notice and experience, and in some sense they are linked to ("given by" if you like) the twelve weeks and the two years. (Technically, pregnant is an adjective, notice and experience are nouns. Possessive phrases do need two nouns – one to possess and one to be possessed.)
  • A forty-week pregnancy
The pregnancy is not linked to a "forty-week". In forty weeks' pregnancy, the pregnancy is linked to forty weeks.
  • She walks the dog
You sometimes see She walk's the dog, but this is wrong. The walks here is not the possessive of a walk, but the present tense of the verb to walk. Verbs never take possessive apostrophes. It should be she walks the dog.
  • CD's and  video's for sale.
This is also wrong – there's nothing in the sentence to be possessed by the CD or the video. It should be plural, not possessive: CDs and videos for sale. It would be OK to say the CD's label was coming off, and the video's price was wrong, because the CD does have a label, and the video does have a price.

Sometimes it's just a plural:
  • I own three Fords.
  • I reckon Sonys are the best DVD players.
  • I've sold three Volvos and two Ford Pumas and the Golden Gate Bridge to boot.

So, got all of that have you???

Don’t worry too much if you haven’t. Re-read it chunks at a time and it will start to gell.

And any Questions then?

Well, don’t bother me now. It’s lunchtime and my brain’s hurting.

And Finally….

After all of that, there is still some usage which is not settled.

Debate rages over James's book and James' book, over Farmers Market and Farmers' Market. If accounts department doesn't need an apostrophe, what about customers car park?

But don’t worry about that. It’s an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem).

Thought for the Day

If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?


  1. You sure know how to give a foreign girl writer's block! With apostrophe!
    I feel like I'm employed at the dry cleaners right now...

  2. "One years's pay (a year of pay)"

    Is this correct? Shouldn't the apostrophe come before the s as it is a singular unit of time?

    Sorry, just trying to wrap my head around it and you blog has been the clearest explanation so far. You also have a typo on "six months' nsurance (six months of insurance)" but that's entirely excusable :-)

    Thanks, PJ

  3. hahah, "you" blog!!! Typical!