A look at best practice for using apostrophes in contemporary writing.

Summary
  • Apostrophes in English writing have a long and complex history which, even today, can cause confusion and controversy.
  • Reminding students to use apostrophes correctly is a common request from examiners so students will benefit from taking the time to develop good apostrophe knowledge.
  • Apostrophes are used to signal elision.
  • Apostrophes are used to signal the genitive case – most commonly known as the possessive apostrophe.
  • Some homophones can cause confusion and need to be carefully learnt.
  • As always, there are some exceptions and oddities which also need to be learnt.
  • Apostrophes may disappear in the long-term but in the short-term, students should use them.

An introduction to the wacky world of apostrophes

Like most other punctuation marks, apostrophes have a varied history. Initially used to signal elision (the omission of the sound of part of a word when spoken), by the eighteenth century the apostrophe was being used by printers to signal the genitive (the special form of a noun used to show possession or close connection between two things). Occasionally, printers would also use the apostrophe to signal plural nouns: apple’s, comma’s.

By the nineteenth century, the modern consensus position started to emerge whereby elision and the genitive remained marked by an apostrophe, but in other situations (e.g. plurals) the mark was retired.

By the twentieth century, with the development of modern visual marketing, brands started to quietly drop the apostrophe from their names, or never adopt them in the first place, giving us Boots, Lloyds Bank and Morrisons among others. Some brands have wavered, such as the rollercoaster journey of the twentieth century British seaside holiday indicated by Butlin’s, Butlins and now Butlin’s again.

No wonder, then, that apostrophe usage can feel confusing. Unlike the firm certainty of the full stop, apostrophes seem flighty and unpredictable.

However, despite this, apostrophe usage in the early twenty-first century is not a free-for-all. There are some widely-followed, regular conventions of usage in written English and students will benefit from learning and actively applying those conventions in their writing, rather than scattering their texts with errors or relying on autocorrect which, of course, will not be available in the exam.

Is there any point bothering with apostrophes?

First though, it’s worth responding to this regularly-asked question. It is usually asked by students who have, yet again, received back a marked essay from their teacher, only to find red apostrophes liberally scattered across the page.

After all, they say, with some justification, few use apostrophes in everyday usage on social media or messaging apps.

True, but, of course, GCSE English examiners expect and reward a more formal, more crafted writing style. Writing using emojis, minimal punctuation and a lack of upper case letters is not a good exam strategy.

Let’s take a look at some recent examiner reports:

  • The AQA Examiner report June 2017 notes that “there were…students…of all abilities, who were unable to…use apostrophes properly.”
  • The AQA Examiner report June 2019 reminded teachers that “correct apostrophes, accurate sentence and speech punctuation are all core skills for this specification.”
  • The Edexcel Examiner Report June 2019 notes that the main differences between the higher marked answers and lower marked answers were: “comma splicing, missing apostrophes, missing capital letters at the beginning of sentences, random capital letters.”

Almost every year, the examiners repeat similar messages. They must have them on a copy/paste macro. Regular as clockwork, students will throw away marks by paying little attention to the basics of punctuation, including apostrophe placement.

After all, there are huge marks on offer. For the AQA writing tasks, 40% of the marks are rewarded for AO6 technical accuracy. For CAIE IGCSE Paper 2 Composition tasks, the weighting for accuracy leaps to 60%.

Here’s what AO6 looks like at the top of the AQA mark scheme:

  • Sentence demarcation is consistently secure and consistently accurate
  • Wide range of punctuation is used with a high level of accuracy
  • Uses a full range of appropriate sentence forms for effect
  • Uses Standard English consistently and appropriately with secure control of complex grammatical structures

So, yes, there is a point bothering with apostrophes. For the examiners, correct apostrophe placement is a core skill. Missing or misplaced apostrophes, coupled with other errors of punctuation, will see a piece of writing drop down the mark scale very rapidly.

Moreover, missing apostrophes can be seen a mile off – even before the examiner has fully read the answer. So offer a good first impression to the examiner by showing correct apostrophe usage.

Here then are the main conventions of apostrophe usage as are current in mid-twenty-first century written English.

1. Elision (or: contraction and omission)

The most common, and indeed the original, use of apostrophes in modern written English is to signal elision. Elision is the omission of the sound of part of a word when spoken. It is also common to hear this referred to as contraction, the ‘shortening’ of words.

So, when we push two or more words together and elide/shorten them, we need an apostrophe.

This process generally leads to letters being omitted from the resulting shortened word so another way to think about this apostrophe is to remember that it signals missing letters.

Here are some examples:

  • I am I’m
  • You are You’re
  • It is It’s
  • We are We’re
  • They are They’re
  • Do not Don’t
  • Can not Can’t
  • Would have Would’ve

Some elisions lead to quite extensive changes to the remaining letters and/or changes in pronunciation, or are more informal as a result of multiple elisions:

  • Will not Won’t
  • It is ten of the clock It’s ten o’clock
  • You will have You’ll’ve (very informal)

Finally, there are some elisions that are found in dialect and can be used in short story dialogue to signal a character’s background/origin or to suggest different levels of formality:

It is quite common for style guides to advise against using contractions and, indeed, most of the instances above would generally be written out in full in formal writing. However, in dialogue in short stories, for example, the examiner would expect a student to attempt to inject realism into their representation of spontaneous spoken language so, in that circumstance, correct apostrophe usage is vital and is rewarded by examiners.

2. The genitive (or: apostrophe of possession)

The other main use of the apostrophe is to signal a noun in the genitive case. This is more usually known as the possessive, or the apostrophe of possession, although the ‘possession’ being communicated might not be possession in an obvious physical sense.

The apostrophe of possession is usually followed by an s, thus creating ‘apostrophe s.’

Here are some examples showing a person owning a physical thing:

  • The woman’s bike
  • Efan’s football
  • Sonia’s suitcase
  • The man’s gloves

Here are some examples showing how possession can also mean ‘owning’ a non-physical concept:

  • England’s success
  • Efan’s scoring record
  • Sonia’s ambition
  • The man’s uncertainty

Here are some examples showing how to show possession when a word already ends with an s, for example because it is a plural. This usually means that the s from ‘apostrophe s’ is dropped:

  • The dogs’ noses (lots of dogs with lots of noses)
  • The societies’ presidents (lots of societies with lots of presidents)
  • James’s boat OR James’ boat (one James and one boat)
  • The beaches’ erosion (lots of beaches, each experiencing erosion)

In some circumstances, it may be better to avoid using an apostrophe by inverting the statement. This will also help in speaking as “the beaches’ erosion” and “the beach’s erosion” sound identical and can be confused: does this mean the erosion of one beach or many beaches? So, invert the elements in the phrase and we get “the erosion of the beaches.”

In some rare cases, an apostrophe s may be entirely dropped simply to avoid making ‘un-pleasing’ phrases that could lack clarity. Consider that we are unlikely to see or hear “the church’s spire” or “the church’s door” or “the church’s yard.” More likely, they will be referred to as “the church spire,” “the church door,” and “the churchyard.” So, as always in a living language, there are exceptions but these are rare. The vast majority of instances of possession will require some form of ‘apostrophe s.’

3. Homophones and near-homophones

There can be some confusion about apostrophe placement caused by the existence of homophone pairs i.e. words that sound exactly alike but have different meanings. Like with all homophones, students need to know exactly which one they are using before choosing the spelling.

There are also words that sound slightly different but are close enough to be commonly confused. Again, students need to know exactly which one you are using before choosing a spelling.

It’s and its

“It’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

“Its” is a possessive determiner, the possessive form of “it” and, unusually, does not need an apostrophe. It is an important exception, allowing the word to be differentiated from “it’s.”

  • It’s a sunny day.
  • The dog is not happy with its new toy.
  • It’s going to be fun.
  • The company had to close its Wicklewood office.
You’re and your

“You’re” is the contraction of “you are.”

“Your” is a possessive determiner and indicates possession of something by “you.”

  • You’re happy.
  • Your bike is amazing.
  • You’re not allowed to go.
  • Your ambition is driving you to greatness.
They’re, their and there

“They’re” is the contraction of “they are.” “Their” is a possessive determiner, indicating possession of something by “they.” “There” indicates location and is also used in the very common phrase “there is/there are.”

  • They’re happy.
  • Their shoes have gone missing.
  • The sea is over there.
  • They’re not going to believe this.
  • Their wedding was a lovely occasion.
  • There are two cathedrals in Norwich.
We’re, were and where (almost homophones)

“We’re” is the contraction of “we are.” “Were” is part of the past tense of the verb “be.” “Where” is a question word for when we need to know where something is.

The pronunciation of these words in most widely-used dialects of English is different but can be close enough to be confused. In some dialects (e.g. Broad Norfolk), the pronunciation overlaps completely (due to the near–square merger). Thus, it may require students to think grammatically (am I using the past tense of ‘be’?) in order to work out which one to use.

  • We’re happy.
  • They were on their way.
  • Where is Ballinadee?
  • We’re going to get excellent grades.
  • We were in Happisburgh last week.
  • Where is my bike?

4. Abbreviations, proper nouns, exceptions and oddities

Once we enter the world of abbreviations and place names, apostrophe becomes slightly more flexible and can offer be a style decision rather than a grammar decision. In the case of long-existing place names, apostrophes usage may be defined more by tradition than by grammar.

Most publishing organisations will have their own ‘house style’ to explain how to use apostrophes in these cases. For example, the BBC News Style Guide makes the following recommendations.

  • Some common abbreviations do not require apostrophes: phone, plane, flu.
  • Dates do not require apostrophes (eg: 1900s) – unless the century is omitted (eg: the England squad of ’66).
  • Apostrophes are not generally needed for plurals of initialisms (eg: MPs, MBEs), but they are for the pluralisation of letters of the alphabet (eg: Our task now is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s).
  • For names, use the possessive ‘apostrophe s’ whenever possible: Burns’s, Jones’s, Charles’s, James’s, Dickens’s, Phillips’s. But be guided by how the last syllable of the name is pronounced: Jesus’, Bridges’, Moses’, Hodges’, Griffiths’, Walters’ – also Wales’.
  • There should be an apostrophe before the word “time” in sentences such as “The game will be played in two weeks’ time” or “They stop work in an hour’s time.”
  • The bank (Lloyds) has no apostrophe, but the insurance underwriter and the register of shipping (Lloyd’s) does.
  • Lord’s cricket ground has an apostrophe before the “s”. Sadler’s Wells theatre in London has an apostrophe before the “s”.
  • The football ground in Newcastle is St James’ Park and in Exeter it is St James Park. The open space in London is St James’s Park (also St James’s Palace).
  • Queen’s College in Oxford has an apostrophe before the “s”. Queens’ College in Cambridge has it after.
  • Earls Court has no apostrophe for either the building or the area. (The confusing reality is that the building has never had an apostrophe – while the area is likewise written without one by the Ordnance Survey, but with one by TfL.)

Are apostrophes dying out?

Students are often frustrated by apostrophes and wonder what the point of them is – and would love to avoid using them altogether. Students also notice that apostrophes are often ignored. So are they dying out?

Some, with excellent knowledge of language history, even note that apostrophes were used differently in the past and are, indeed, fairly recent innovations. They argue, in a perfectly postmodern way that, as there is no such thing as ‘correct’ or ‘proper’, no fixed ‘Apostrophe Law of the Universe,’ they should not be required to meet standards that are ‘arbitrary’ and ever-changing.

Now, it is almost certainly true that conventions of apostrophe usage will change again, as they have in the past. However, it is very unlikely that apostrophe conventions will change so quickly that apostrophes disappear just before the end of Year 11, in time for the GCSE exams.

It’s also worth pointing out that just because something was done differently in the past does not invalidate the way we might choose to do things now. After all, until 1832 it was possible to be elected to Parliament by a town that had disappeared into the sea. Railways in the 1850s were hand-dug by men with shovels. Until 1875, it was still common for young boys to be forced to climb up chimneys to clean them. Even worse, the people of the nineteenth century had to live their entire lives without the joy, the drama, the glory of NCFC, founded 1902. I don’t want to live in a world without the Canaries and I am sure the students don’t want to either.

Sure, rules, customs and conventions change all the time but that doesn’t mean there are no rules, customs and conventions. All major publishing and media companies use apostrophes: the BBC, Penguin Books, Norwich Castle Museum. All sources of language expertise use apostrophes and, most importantly, your examiners expect apostrophes.

They are an expected element of written English and should be used. I even recommend that students begin using them in informal uses of language to help with practice and familiarity.

Maybe in a few centuries’ time, we will look back on apostrophes and wonder what all the fuss was about. But, for now, apostrophes must be part of student writing.