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A single rule for apostrophes.

20140109 (2014 January 09 Thursday)

a sad apostropheApostrophes don’t have to be complicated. Normally we are taught several rules and many exceptions, and are expected to remember them. I have one rule and some examples. (If you already know how to do apostrophes then skip this post, unless you are teaching.)

Rule: Use apostrophes for contractions, that is when a word or words are made shorter by removing letters, use the apostrophe as a place-holder for the missing letters.

Examples simple contraction:

  • it is → it’s
  • it is → ’tis
  • do not → don’t
  • will not → won’t
  • can not → can’t
  • are not → aren’t
  • of the clock → o’clock
  • Holloweven → Hollowe’en
  • cat-of-nine-tails → cat-o’-nine-tails
  • will-of-the-wisp → will-o’-the-wisp
  • it was → ’twas

But not all contractions.

  • gymnasium → gym
  • advertisement → ad
  • etc.

Rule: Use apostrophes for contractions, that is when a word or words are made shorter by removing letters, use the apostrophe as a place-holder for the missing letters.

Examples possession:

  • John his ball → John’s ball
  • the cat its ball → the cat’s ball
  • Sarah hers ball → Sarah’s ball
  • the bus its wheels → the bus’s wheels
  • its ball → its ball
  • his ball → his ball
  • her ball → her ball
  • their ball → their ball

These seem a bit odd in the long form, nobody uses them any more, we always use the short form. However they are useful to help us remember where to put the apostrophe. (The history in this post is made up, it is just an aid to memory.)

We don’t have an apostrophe for Plurals, there is no contraction.
Rule: Use apostrophes for contractions, that is when a word or words are made shorter by removing letters, use the apostrophe as a place-holder for the missing letters.

Example:

  • cats → cats
  • dogs → dogs
  • buses → buses
  • TVs → TVs
  • LEDs → LEDs

So what about plurals, possession and words ending in s? The answer is the same.

Rule: Use apostrophes for contractions, that is when a word or words are made shorter by removing letters, use the apostrophe as a place-holder for the missing letters.

Example plurals and possession:

  • the cats there ball → the cats’ ball
  • the girls there ball → the girls’ ball

If a singular noun ends with an s-sound (spelled with -s, -se, for example), practice varies as to whether to add ‘s or the apostrophe alone. A widely accepted practice is to follow whichever spoken form is judged better: the boss’s shoes, Mrs Jones’ hat (or Mrs Jones’s hat, if that spoken form is preferred). In many cases, both spoken and written forms differ between writers. — (paragraph taken from wikipedia)

Years 1990 to 1999 that is the 1990s, the 10 years between 1990 and 1999, but for some reason Americans write 1970’s.


Now for the other anomaly:

Individual letters and numbers when pluralised have an apostrophe.
e.g.
12341567189 has 3 1’s, not 3 1s, or better 1 appears three times.
abcdaefgahi has 3 a’s, not 3 as, or better a appears three times.

There are a few other exceptions, however this is the simplest system I could think of. One rule that covers over 90% of it, and a few exceptions. If you go by the other systems then these exceptions are exceptions to exceptions to exceptions.

If you do not learn the exceptions then you will be well ahead of every one else. If you need to look up an exception I recommend the Penguin guide to punctuation. Its rules are simple (though the rules on apostrophise, are not as simple as mine), take the result and fit it into your newly learnt model (or just look it up each time, until you learn it).

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