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The correct grammatical usage of the apostrophe explained, but without being boring!
Putting your apostrophe in the right places and not in the wrong places is quite easy once you know the simple rules. Plus, if you get this right, grammatical fusspots will think better of you.
Before explaining the rules for the apostrophe's use and how it's often the victim of howling errors which give that particular piece of punctuation its special literary battlefield status where pedants and illiterati draw swords rather than drawing conclusions, let's just first of all state a clear manifesto:
I am writing this to be helpful, for the right reasons. It does not bother me much if you get your apostrophes wrong. There are more important things in life, and if I were to get on my high horse about something, it would be more likely a jot bigger than the apostrophe.
However, the rules of the apostrophe and the way to get it right are easily understood, and if you choose to ignore them, it won't worry me, but it will upset fussy pedantic people who will be inclined to regard you as ignorant or illiterate, quite unfairly, as you've probably made a life choice to be unconcerned with such trivial matters as the apostrophe.
What a verbose preamble! On with the stuff about the mystery of the apostrophe and how to get it right:
* An apostrophe is that little single quote symbol in such terms as Joe's Cafe. Some words have it in, such as don't, you'll, and it'll.
* Apostrophes are used in words where something belongs to someone. For example, "The dog's breakfast", meaning a breakfast that belongs to the dog. Historically, this is a shorthand for "The dog - his breakfast". Scribes wishing to save time decided to miss out the first letters of "his" and just stick the letter "s" on the end, but they felt the need to leave a note to say something was missing, so they put that little mark there, the apostrophe, to avoid confusion. Apostrophes make the language clearer, so instead of having to say "The dog; his master his voice", it just becomes His Master's Voice. Extra note on the "HIS = 's" derivation thanks to Gregg for writing in: Lynne Truss questions this theory. "...For example, if the same process were used with the phrase Elizabeth Her Reign surely the abbreviation would have ended up being Elizabethr Reign". Indeed, looking at the ancient citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, where words such as "his" and "her" go back to the 1200s, yet the modern "correct" use of apostrophes was only standardised as late as 1725, it may be there is more to this than the standard teaching has led us to believe. To find out more, see the book, described by Gregg as "a wonderful book on the subject of correct use of the apostrophe", Eats, shoots & leaves, by Lynne Truss (Amazon).
* Apostrophes are not used in normal plurals. "A plague of rats", not "a plague of rat's". Special note here is that even if the word being pluralised ends in a vowel such as "a" or "o" etc, it should still have no apostrophe. Classically the mistake is known as The Greengrocer's Apostrophe, as such purveyors of fruit would be much more interested in offering the customers some quality delicious fruit than getting their handwritten labels made to grammatical precision. So, if you're a grammatical fusspot and you see a fruit shop with a sign saying "banana's at discount prices", the correct thing to say is: "Good Morning. I'd like to buy some discount bananas please", rather than "Did you know, you've got your apostrophes in the wrong place?!".
* Apostrophes are traditionally used in special words which are "contractions" where a word or phrase has been shortened, for example "don't" instead of "do not", "they're" instead of "they are", and many other examples. As a rule of thumb, apostrophes appear to show where something is missing, for example on road signs where they've got short of paint, "B'ham" instead of "Birmingham".
* The major exception is the word "its". When used in place of "it is", then "it's" is correct. But when used as a possessive where something belongs to someone or something, no apostrophe is to be used. This makes more sense than it seems at first. In the tradition of ships being regarded as female, "the ship dropped her anchor", no problem of apostrophe, so in the case of non-feminised ships "the ship dropped its anchor", you can easily resist the temptation to say "it's", which would mean "it is".
Another apostrophological anomaly occurs where something is collectively owned by several people, "the brothers' legacy", or where the possessor already has an "s" to their name, for example "Jones's Butchers".
It does not matter if the word already has an s on the end. There are no special exceptions for that. As someone pointed out on forum, "the boss's books", (as in the books belonging to the boss), is correct because "boss" is singular in this case. Someone has asked, "which is the right form -- business's or business'?". The way to decide is to consider whether business is singular or plural. Business, as a general state of things, like life, or the weather, is a concept that is singular, so therefore the possessive would be business's. Example: "Following the stockmarket crash, business's strategy had to be reconsidered". (The strategy of business in general had to be reconsidered). If it had been a plural, "businesses", then their assets would be "businesses' assets".
Computer spellcheckers can lead you into a false sense of security as they usually have not a clue about getting "there" and "their" mixed up, "were" and "where", and "weather" and "whether", and regarding apostrophes, they might as well be catastrophes for all we know about spellchecking.
Other notes: The common practice of decades such as "The 1970s" habitually get an erroneous apostrophe where none is required. Similarly CDs and DVDs do not really get glued together so badly that they need an apostrophe to tell you they are separate or that there's anything missing.
Even some professors of literary skill have shown complete befuddlement at the mystery of why the banana is especially singled out as the epitome of bad apostrophication. But I can easily see how this has happened. The fruiterer might look at the newly felt-tipped word on the cardboard and think it doesn't look right, "Bananas" as if it's a word like "Christmas" which has an "AS" kind of ending. So, to try to make it clear to customers, the proprietor puts an apostrophe where it's not needed.
The whole business of apostrophes stirs quite strong feelings among some people, and there have been societies formed to campaign for the universal correct observance of the correct use of the apostrophe. I am not of that belief set, although I'm keen to make sure I get these things right. If you spot any mistakes, please tell me and I'll try to correct them.
The main reason I've written this page is to get away from the boring image which grammatical detail has acquired. The fact is, it doesn't matter to me if you want to get your grammar in a twist. But I feel it's only fair to mention that if you choose to ignore details such as spelling and grammar in your writing, some of the fussy people will think you are not well-educated, in a similar way to the rather snooty way you might be regarded at a banquet if you had very bad table manners.
So, my advice about apostrophes is: Learn how to get them right, and then don't worry!
If you want to take this further, you can take up the daring sport of "Extreme Apostrophe", where you can say things like "the banana's skin was the cause of the accident". Infuriating to people who regard "banana's" is always wrong and an inexcusable mistake, whereas in that sentence you can see it is correct, as it was the skin which belonged to the banana which caused the accident. "My Husband and I" is always correctly used by The Queen of England, but there are also correct contexts for using "My Husband and Me", which if you'd like to hear more of this style of explanation, I can explain.
If you have constructive criticism about this page please write in and I'll see if it can be improved. I don't suppose it's perfect. But if you feel that it's all very geeky and nerdy and that you want to tell me to "get a life", hold fire and take a look at the vast expanse of the website I run and the fact that it makes more money than if I had a well-paid job, and that I am hoping to move to a tax haven. Many pages of interesting advice and strange misconceptions can be explored. Plus, the site includes a useful shopping portal
In 2009, Birmingham City Council decided to abolish apostrophes on all street signs in Birmingham. However, this doesn't change things in a wider sense; it just creates another interesting anomaly in the continuing saga of the apostrophe. Birmingham City Council might also count itself lucky that the surrounding districts will be maintaining correct placement of apostrophes on signs which show people the way to B'ham, not to Bham.
Update: After creating this page, I discovered there is such an organisation as The Apostrophe Protection Society, which was started in 2001 by John Richards, so of course a link to www.apostrophe.org.uk is now added. Also see www.bostonuk.com/linkdetail.php?id=585&cid=1208&f=Boston
"Apostrophe", not to be confused with Apostasy, which is giving up religion. Apostasy is a human right whereas an Apostrophe is just a punctuation mark.