Laurel Shane’s ode to the apostrophe

An editor tells us how to keep every hair in place The apostrophe has been giving writers trouble ever since it first appeared in English in the 16th century. In this century, stray apostrophes became so irksome in documents of the English town of Nottingham that its City Council instituted an “apostrophe box.” (Every time a staffer made an error with this curvy little mark, he or she had to put £1 into the box, with proceeds to go to charity.) On this side of the pond, September 24 is National Punctuation Day, so it only seems fitting to give this under-understood punctuation mark its due. The apostrophe has three main functions: 1) to show possession, 2) to show where characters have been omitted, and 3) to show the plural of some expressions.
  • Jacob’s dog’s favorite game is fetch.
  • I don’t ever get tired of eatin’ bread ’n’ butter.
  • Mind your p’s and q’s.
This seems pretty straightforward, but much to the annoyance of editors and grammar grouches, the apostrophe keeps popping up where it simply does not belong. Lynne Truss spends quite a bit of ink on the apostrophe in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, but in the end she urges grammar sticklers not to panic about rampant misuse: “Before we start tearing out our hair at sloppy, ignorant usage,” Truss writes, let’s remember the sobering wisdom of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, which advises that “’there never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear-cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people.’” So instead of tearing out our hair, let’s just bring about a new golden age in which we all know when to use an apostrophe—and when to leave it out. In that spirit, here are four of the most common places people unnecessarily insert apostrophes:
  1. With plural words. When you’re writing a plural word, you usually just add an s (airplanes, earwigs, popsicles). Sometimes you add es (potatoes, branches, indexes) or ies to replace a y (cranberries, realities, beauties). But you don’t need to add an apostrophe.
  2. With acronyms. The above rule applies to acronyms, too. Just capitalize the acronym and add a lowercase s at the end: CDs, DVDs, FAQs, ATMs.
  3. With family names. Have you ever seen a house sign that says the Cunningham’s or received a holiday card from the Smith’s? This is a very common error, but it’s yet another case of a plural word that just needs an s.
  4. At the end of decades or centuries. Many people add an apostrophe between the numerals and the s when writing about time periods (e.g., the 1700’s, the 80’s), but it doesn’t need to be there. Just say the 1700s. But note: If you’re shortening a decade, do insert an apostrophe before the numerals to show that you’ve omitted some numbers: the ’80s.
With that, let’s raise a glass of mead, ale, or good ol’ American beer to National Punctuation Day. {Laurel Shane is a freelance writer and editor who blogs about punctuation and all sorts of other things on her Web site, Let's Just Be Clear.}

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2 Responses to Laurel Shane’s ode to the apostrophe

  1. Jeanie August 6, 2014 at 4:35 am #

    It appears that you didn’t address the use of an apostrophe on plural possessives ending in an “s”? (Dennis’ house was very neat and tidy.)

    With regard to the apostrophe used with family names, could it be that in it’s early use it meant from the Cunningham’s household, or the Smith’s family, thus needing a possessive?

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  1. Punctuation play | Sin and Syntax - September 25, 2013

    […] typographical ephemera correctly, but I’m happy to contribute to the cause. I’ve just posted a piece by editor Laurel Shane in “Talking Syntax.”  She gives you sound advice on how to use an apostrophe. Also in the same […]

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