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English punctuation – apostrophes – 8 rules

13 października 2015, wtorek,

I’m back again with some common mistakes people make in English. This time, I’d like to talk about the apostrophe (‘) which is pronounced /əpɒstrəfi:/ If you’re not sure how to use it, then you’re actually in good company: many British people don’t know either, and get it wrong all the time!

Here’s just one example I saw last year:

Sweet's or sweets; Image credit: Arron Trevor

Sweet’s or sweets; Image credit: Arron Trevor

  1. The Grocer’s Apostrophe – incorrect plural form

Lots more rock and sweet’s inside? Did the shopkeeper mean that there’s only one sweet inside, or more than one? Probably the latter, so why is there an apostrophe there? This common mistake of trying to indicate a product is plural by adding the apostrophe is known as the “grocer’s apostrophe”.

  1. Apostrophes– who do they belong to?

Less embarrassing (but still incorrect) is the use of the apostrophe after abbreviations such as CD’s and DVD’s. It should just be: CDs and DVDs to indicate that there is a multiple supply of the items.

The best-known use of the apostrophe: indicating possession. Simply add an apostrophe and the letter ‘s ‘to the possessor. This is usually straightforward: for example, Ralph’s beer, Melissa’s bicycle. However, when a name ends in the letter ‘s’, you put the apostrophe after the ‘s’. For example, Thomas’ English Dictionary.

  1. To apostrophe, or not to apostrophe, that is the question!

There is considerable debate over whether or not another ‘s’ is added afterwards in cases where the name ends in ‘s’. The good news is that both forms are correct. St James’ Park is home to Newcastle United Football Club, and St James’s Park is a park in London, with an Underground station of the same name.

St. James's Park, Image credit: snipview.com

St. James’s Park, Image credit: snipview.com

St. James' Park, Image credit: telegraph.co.uk

St. James’ Park, Image credit: telegraph.co.uk

  1. Apostrophes – Noun versus Name

Now, when the possessor is a noun rather than a name, things get interesting, especially when the noun is plural. Consider these two phrases: “the boy’s room” and “the boys’ room”. At first glance they look similar, until you notice the apostrophe appears in a different place.

So how many boys are we talking about in each case? Well done if you correctly realised that the first refers to one boy, and the second refers to more than one.

  1. Do apostrophes REALLY matter?

“In the Internet age, aren’t apostrophes unnecessary and too difficult?”

Waterstones, a famous chain of British bookshops, used to be called Waterstone’s (the shops were named after the founder, Tim Waterstone) until they dropped the apostrophe in 2012 because it was more “practical”. The outraged Apostrophe Protection Society quickly pointed out that Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s still manage to use their apostrophes with pride.

McDonald's is still proud of its apostrophe, Image credit: theguardian.com

McDonald’s is still proud of its apostrophe, Image credit: theguardian.com

Quick shopping apostrophe fact: You may do your weekly shopping at Sainsbury’s in the UK, but never at Tesco’s. It’s Tesco!

  1. Is this apostrophe sentence correct?

“In 2012, Waterstones got rid of it’s apostrophe.”

No, it isn’t correct. “It’s” is the contracted form of “It is”. The correct version is:

“In 2012, Waterstones got rid of its apostrophe”

So, the possessive form of “it” is “its”. Without the apostrophe.

  1. Keeping it simple with apostrophes

Contractions. The rule is very simple: the apostrophe replaces the letters which have been omitted, e.g. you are = you’re, do not = don’t. This leads to another problem, because there is no difference in pronunciation between “you’re” and “your” or between “they’re”, “their” and “there”. Which of these sentences is correct?

  1. I hope your doing well at school.
  2. They’re bringing their children to the party.
  3. Can you turn you’re music down please?

Answer: the second sentence is correct. The first should read “I hope you’re doing well at school” and the third should be “Can you turn your music down please?”

  1. Apostrophes + English exams = ?

One final note: contracted forms are used in spoken English and informal written English. If you’re taking an English exam, and are doing any kind of formal writing task, avoid contractions. Use “you are” instead of “you’re

Apostrophe summary

Do use the apostrophe to show possession.

Do use the apostrophe with contractions.

Don’t use the apostrophe with plural nouns.

Be careful with its and it’s.

Be careful with your and you’re plus their, there and they’re.