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What everybody ought to know about apostrophes

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How not to use apostrophe’s

They’re billed as ‘aspiring tycoons’; entry criteria include being ‘creative, sparky and bright’.  So what led the candidates on this year’s Apprentice to spend three hours deciding whether ‘National Singles Day’ needed an apostrophe and, if so, where it would lie?

It’s a common mistake encountered in written English.  Not only do many people struggle with the possessive apostrophe, as above, but also with the wider uses of the inverted comma.  Were you born in the 1970s or the 1970’s?  Is it your responsibility to know or you’re responsibility to know?  (In case you were wondering, it’s National Singles’ Day, the 1970s, and your responsibility.)

Now, let’s deal with the easy ones before getting on to the possessive apostrophe.  When it comes to your versus you’re, the inverted comma signifies a contraction, a missing letter.  You’re means you are, they’re means they are, and so on.  Should there be any doubt as to which to use, a useful piece of advice is to consider something in that pattern of words that could not possibly be anything else.  For instance, here you might think of I’m; the apostrophe is used to bring together two words, so if what you’re trying to write is ‘you are’, you need an apostrophe.

(Just slightly off-topic, but the word ‘advice’ can be used in a similar way to determine whether a word takes a c or s.  Thus, advise and advice are rarely confused.  Practise and practice, however, often are.  Remember that s is for the verb and c is for the noun.)

Sometimes people use an inverted comma where none is grammatically required for aesthetic reasons, with the 1970’s being one example.  If you feel more comfortable writing that, there’s no major problem.  Correct grammar is primarily employed to eliminate ambiguity in language, with more fluent and more impressive writing side benefits.  It would of course matter if you wished to distinguish the best-selling artist of the 1970s from 1970’s best-selling artist, and that is where command of the possessive apostrophe becomes important.

Whereas the 1970’s uses an apostrophe where none is necessary, talking of 1970s best-selling artist is grammatically incorrect.  So what are the rules?

  • Use the normal possessive ending (’s) after singular words or names that end in s (i.e. Henry’s phone, the manager’s wife, the dress’s hem)
  • Use the normal possessive ending (’s) after plurals that do not end in s (i.e. women’s rights, the consortia’s management)
  • Use the ending s’ on plurals that end in s (i.e. the board members’ meeting, the invoices’ due dates)
  • Use the ending s’ on plural names that take a singular verb (i.e. Reuters’ profits, Barclays’ employees, the United States’ president)
  • It’s means it is; its is always the possessive form

The contestants on the Apprentice attempted to resolve questions of apostrophe use by calling the editor of the Daily Telegraph.  Unsurprisingly, this gambit failed.  But if you’re still in doubt:

  • Try an online guide to writing.  Particularly recommended are the Economist Style Guide and the Guardian Style Guide.
  • Consider whether an apostrophe would be used for one unit.  For example, if you’re unsure whether 12 weeks time needs an apostrophe, remember that it would always be one week’s time and never one week time.  Therefore, it should be 12 weeks’ time.

Let’s leave the final word to the comedian Stewart Lee:

‘I’ve been doing one of my hobbies, which is to question shopkeepers and market-stall holders who persist in misusing the possessive apostrophe, like where it says “carrot’s 30p”.  I find that stall-holder and say, “Oh, can I see the 30p that belongs to the carrot, and the carrot that is so sophisticated that it actually owns 30p?  I’d like to see that, a carrot that understands the concept of accumulating wealth.  Come on, where are they?  Or shall I prosecute you under the Advertising Standards Act for advertising a product that doesn’t exist?  Oh, I see, I see, you didn’t mean that.  You meant that carrots cost 30p.   Well, why didn’t you say that?”’

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