Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
Apart from the Oxford comma, few pieces of punctuation attract as much controversy as the apostrophe. (Which is why I've left this article so late in the Punctuation Series to write: I needed to be emotionally ready for any backlash.) The apostrophe has a set of fairly straightforward rules and some not-infrequent confusion about its use that together have resulted in a reputation of being challenging, terrifying, and likely to attract the wrath of self-styled "Grammar Nazis" if you use it incorrectly.
Let's clear away that mess and proceed, calmly and sensibly, through the rules of the apostrophe. You'll find that they're not nearly as bad as you think.
In English, the apostrophe has two primary roles:
Creating a possessive;
Indicating a contraction.
While it was often used for the creation of some plurals, this practice is now generally discouraged (see "Not in shortened forms!", below).
This is pretty easy: if you want to show possession in a sentence, put an "apostrophe S" (an apostrophe against the final letter, followed by an "s", no spacing) on the end of the possessing noun. So this:
The skin of the fig was warm and soft.
The fig's skin was warm and soft.
Easy, huh? Let's go through a couple more:
Alistair tore out the last page of the book.
Alistair tore out the book's last page.
Alistair dropped the lid of the saucepan.
Alistair dropped the saucepan's lid.
That's pretty easy, right? You've got it. Okay, let's try some harder ones. The above examples are singular nouns. Each noun word represents a single thing: a fig, a book, or a saucepan. Plural nouns might seem trickier, but they're really not.
A plural noun is just that: a bunch of things represented by a word, the noun. Cats, dogs, waitresses, raincoats: these are all plural nouns. Now, when it comes time to show that these things own something else, you need to make sure it's clear that all the things own the something else. The apostrophe is used to indicate who is doing the possessing: is it just one of the bunch of things, or is it the whole bunch of things? To compare:
The cat's bowl of tuna chunks.
Means one cat's bowl of delicious processed fishlike dinner. On the other hand:
The cats' bowl of tuna chunks.
Indicates that a lot of cats are sharing this bowl of processed fishlike dinner (I'd get more bowls if I were you).
See the key difference? Singular noun = "apostrophe S". Plural noun = "S apostrophe".
To figure it out while you're writing, ask yourself "who owns the [whatever is being owned]?" Is it all the cats, or just one cat?
The raincoat's pockets were full of water.
In this example, we have just one raincoat, whose pockets, as you see, were full of water.
The raincoats' pockets were full of water.
In this example, you can see (by the apostrophe after the s) that all the raincoats had water-laden pockets. Okay, I think you've got the hang of that, now, right? Apostrophe after the s for plural nouns, yep?
Let's take it one step further. Some plurals don't use an s. One man, many men. One woman, many women. One vacant-eyed and unhallowed child; many vacant-eyed and unhallowed children. One bloodthirsty goose, two bloodthirsty geese. And so on. So what are you to do? There you are, hovering around looking for an s to tack the apostrophe onto, and there isn't one to be seen. Well, you simply treat it like a singular noun and bring your own s along with the apostrophe.
Check it out:
This man's raincoat.
These men's raincoats.
The bloodthirsty goose's bite was fierce and swift.
The bloodthirsty geese's bites were fierce and swift.
See? Straightforward (if terrifying).
These rules of possession hold up even when the possessing noun becomes a bit more complex. Compare:
The last album's tracks were bizarre.
The last two albums' tracks were bizarre.
And here's an example of a plural form that doesn't use an s:
The lady-in-waiting's ipecac syrup.
The ladies-in-waiting's ipecac syrup.
You can do that! Very simple. Apostrophe + s to show possession. If the possessors are plural, ending in s, just tack an apostrophe after the s that's already there. If it's a plural, but doesn't have an s, tack one after the apostrophe.
What? There's already an s but the word's not a plural? Tricky!
So this is probably where most people get quite confused, and that's entirely understandable. Rules regarding this situation are changing and it can be really tough to keep up with what's "right". Let's work through this. Here, hold my hand. Oh, alright, have it your way.
If you went to primary school about the same time I did (or earlier), you were probably taught something like "if the word ends with an s, don't add another one after the apostrophe!" as if there was a worldwide scarcity of the letter s and we had to be careful not to use them up. If you were successfully taught this, you probably spent a lot of your life trying to suppress the sense of awkwardness when you said things out loud like:
James' amazing house.
Charles' fern plantation.
Floss' ornamental headdress.
The mattress' musty smell.
You can probably tell from my tone that I do not like this rule at all. The habit of flinching over the inconsistency of saying "Vanessa's" but not "Floss's" has never left me. I'm thankful to say that this rule is rapidly falling into disuse, as common language use is more frequently reflected in writing—even formal writing.
If there's an s at the end of a singular word (such as a name), then please feel free to take an apostrophe s at the end, regardless of what you may have once been taught.
An interesting element of this rule: many writers will not add an extra s if the name ending in s is Biblical.
So they will write:
Charles's weekend away.
Jesus' holiday snaps.
This is generally considered an acceptable anachronism, but I would not recommend incorporating it into your usual apostrophe practices. I would recommend keeping the apostrophisation of Biblical names consistent with your usual apostrophisation.
Right, I think you're ready to tackle some more complex possession: let's look at the issues of joint and separate.
Joint and separate possession
A quick recap:
- single noun possessive? Apostrophe + s.
- single noun possessive? Ends in an s? Apostrophe + s.
- plural noun possessive? Ends in an s? Apostrophe.
- plural noun possessive? Doesn't end in an s? Apostrophe + s.
Okey dokey, let's look at joint and separate possession. If you have some folks and they own something together—a child, for example, or a house or a dark secret—then they have joint possession. They all own that single thing. For example:
Mischa and Tony's Rottweiler.
Ling, Carol and Mozart's house.
Nicola and Gary's shame.
If you have some folks and they all own something, but they each have their own one of those somethings, then you only need to list the something once and all the folks have separate possession.
Instead of saying:
Alistair's accidents and Charles's accidents and Mariah's accidents were an impediment to workflow.
You would say:
Alistair's, Charles's and Mariah's accidents were an impediment to workflow.
This rule doesn't just apply to people, either:
Both the bike's and van's tyres were flat.
Here's a good rule of thumb when writing about folks own something: if everyone has their own something, they each get an apostrophe. If everyone shares a single something, only the last one gets an apostrophe.
Carol's and James's houses were burned down in mysterious circumstances.
This example shows that Carol and James each owned a house (or houses) lost in secretive tragedy.
Carol and James's houses were burned down in mysterious circumstances.
This example shows that Carol and James shared ownership of some houses that have been lost to darkness and intrigue.
See? Not too bad! Indicating possession with apostrophes is pretty easy, once you block out all the shouting. Okay, I think you're ready now. Let's talk about its and it's.
The horrors of its/it's
This is where nearly everyone gets mixed up, at one stage or another. A lot of learning English involves relying on visual memory: the writer often responds to the way a word looks when it's incorrect. Like many homophones, writers may not immediately notice they've used the wrong "it's/its" because there's no obvious visual cue to suggest a mistake. It's a simple confusion, but man, the amount of lambasting some critics dish out, you'd think it was ludicrously clear and obvious.
Let's get a bit linguistic for a second.
In English, we have possessive pronouns. Now, a pronoun is like a mini-word that stops the writer/speaker having to repeat the full name of the subject or object every time they refer to it. So instead of saying:
The queen strode into the queen's room where the queen could see the queen's self in the queen's mirror.
The queen strode into her room, where she could see herself in her mirror.
In the above sentence, "her", "she", "herself" and "her" are all pronouns: a possessive pronoun, a second-person subject pronoun, a reflexive pronoun and another possessive pronoun, respectively.
The possessive pronouns in English show ownership without needing to repeat the nouns: my, her, his, its, their, our, your.
Don't kick the dog bowl: that's its only source of water!
The confusion comes in because we normally use apostrophes to indicate possession:
So the apostrophe + s is used when the noun appears:
The house's windows were dark.
but not for its possessive pronoun:
Its windows were dark.
If you could substitute "his" or "her" for "its", without being grammatically unsound (although perhaps a little inaccurate in terms of genders), then you should leave out the apostrophe.
The reason the writer doesn't see "it's" and instinctively feel it is incorrect is because "it's" is a correct word in English: it's a contraction of the phrase "it is", and a dashed handy one, too. If you can substitute the phrase "it is" where you've used "it's", then you should keep the apostrophe.
If you've noticed in the past that you have a bit of trouble with "it's/its", or if you don't feel completely sure about it, then here's a tip: in whatever word processor you're using, search for one and then the other. For every appearance of either one, repeat the sentence to yourself by substituting "her" or "his", and then substituting "it is". Which is correct? If it's "it is", then keep the apostrophe. If it's "his" or "her", then ditch it.
The other major role of apostrophes in English is as an indicator of a contraction. When the apostrophe arrived in the English language, Wikipedia tells me, it came from French, where it was used to indicate where a vowel had been omitted to reflect its silence in pronunciation. For example, in French one would write le chat and l'ouef: both chat and ouef are preceded by the masculine le, but as ouef begins with a vowel, the e in le is unspoken. This use was imported into English in the 1500s, and one can only assume it developed from there.
Contraction is a straightforward process; where you join words together, pop in an apostrophe to show where the unpronounced letters would be.
I am = I'm
They are = They're
Let us = Let's
These simple examples show the single missing letter taken from the second word in each case.
Could have = Could've
It would = It'd
There's a lot more missing letters in these examples.
Should not = Shouldn't
In the above example, you can see that the apostrophe indicates the missing o in "not": the n runs to the back of the world "should".
There are some odd examples, too, which don't seem to follow the basic pattern as those listed above. Sadly, these just need to be memorised: there's not really an unwavering rule that governs their construction. These are words which change form according to tense and contract:
Shall not = Shan't
In this example, the word "shall" drops both ls from the end of the word, and then the apostrophe indicates the missing o in "not".
Will not = Won't
Similarly, in this example, the word "will" becomes "wo" before joining the apostrophised "n't": the missing o is indicated, but not the missing ls.
Am not/are not/is not = Ain't
This is a helluva controversial one. A lot of us English students were taught, in no uncertain terms, that it wasn't a real word and we shouldn't use it, and stop gawping at me like that, Battrick. For a very long time (we're looking at the eighteenth century onward, here), it was scorned as incorrect. Its use survived, however, and it is now loaded with social and economic connotations as a result of the prescriptivist approach of previous generations of grammarians.
Frankly I like it: in formal English we don't have an "am not" contraction, and we clearly need one because "ain't" has survived to fill the gap (see also: "youse"). I wouldn't go so far as to recommend using it in your writing yet: while it's rapidly gaining traction, it's still a term that is heavily value-loaded. Writer, be wary. Do not use "ain't" in formal writing. In informal writing, reserve it for a character's idiomatic mode of expression, and even then, tread carefully.
Need not have = Needn't've
Ah, the double whammy. Not strictly correct, but I like it. It reflects a particular habit of speech that you will hear throughout English. It is a contraction of "need not have", as in "you need not have brought these bloodthirsty geese". In informal English, especially spoken informal English, it is familiar and make sense. In written English, use it only to indicate a character's unique expressive personality, and never in formal writing.
Not in shortened forms!
A final tricky area in apostrophes: do not use them in shortened forms. You will be most tempted when using numbers:
The 60s was a glorious era.
Some style guides will recommend including an apostrophe at the beginning of this example, do indicate the missing numbers at the start of the numeral, but most will not.
Alistair was born in the early 1800s.
The temperature today will be in the 40s.
But you may also be tempted to apostrophise when you're talking with acronyms. Don't!
The CDs piled up, unheard.
The DVDs piled up, unwatched.
The ANZACs were too busy for such things.
The missing letters are already taken care of by the capitalisation indicating a shortened form. There doesn't need to be an apostrophe as well.
Apostrophes are one of the most frequently-used pieces of punctuation in English, and their use can bring or deny clarity to a sentence. The rules that govern their use are straightforward, but there are so many of them that it's easy to confuse them. If you feel like you haven't got an intuitive grasp on apostrophes, you'll need to take time to edit your text carefully, double-checking any appearances of the little tykes that you think might be mistaken.
Apostrophes tend to be an area where people get nervous about backlash and criticism: frankly, punctuation shouldn't be scary. We all make mistakes, and it's not the end of the world—nor an indicator of wilful ignorance and stupidity—if you write "its" instead of "it's". Take your time, check your work, and, if you're still in any doubt, ask a friendly copy editor!