Sunday 28 March 2010


As in The apostrophe of greengrocers IS solved. That is the only meaning of that sentence written in that way. A word (in this case apostrophes) can only have an apostrophe if it "owns" something that follows or if something is missed out (in this case the first letter of is).

I could equally well have written greengrocer's as greengrocers', because it's up to me whether I mean one or several. This is all about meaning and clarity, not obfuscatory rules. (Yes, I know, we could probably manage without apostrophes at all, but since we have them, let's get 'em right.)

Several of you have asked for a post on apostrophes. Oooh, the pleasure! I haven't done this since I was an English teacher. Apart from the times I taught my daughters. Forcibly. While serving them fish fingers.

By the way, it will be embarrassing if there are typos in this post, especially if they are apostrophe-related! But I can't check it properly until it goes public, and I'm busy surrounded by boxes and may not have internet access. Fingers crossed...

First, forget about "before the s or after the s". We will not be thinking like that, because that way confusion lies. The letter s has absolutely nothing to do with apostrophes. OK? Thinking of s is what has led so many astray.

There are only two reasons to use an apostrophe:

1. ABBREVIATION - WHEN TWO WORDS BECOME ONE or when something is missed out of a word (though many such omissions are nowadays not represented by apostrophes)

Read these examples, because each shows a different aspect:
  • didn't, can't, mustn't etc - you know this, and I don't need to explain oddities like won't
  • It's a lovely day - BUT NB NB NB NB NB: it's ONLY HAS AN APOSTROPHE WHEN SOMETHING HAS BEEN MISSED OUT, ie when it stands for it has or it is. NEVER ELSEWHERE
  • The dog's going to eat its dinner - because dog's stands for The dog IS going...
Some things to consider:

Nowadays, generally speaking, you do not normally need an apostrophe to denote letters missed from the beginning or end of a word, but you do when TWO become one, such as can't - originally can not

In the old days, any missing letters needed to be indicated by either an apostrophe or a full-stop, but not any more. For example, 'phone is now just phone. (There's nothing wrong with 'phone, but it's not needed.) Photo would certainly not be photo'. Therefore, photos* would NOT have an apostrophe. If in doubt, leave it out. These vagaries are a matter of common practice.

*I don't know why this troubles people but please remember that you do NOT just add an apostrophe to denote a plural. The s does that all by itself. This is the problem that greengrocers have. Apples, bananas, peas, etc. No apostrophes. Not unless you're selling the apples' possessions.

CD is one that gets people tangled. Originally it would have been C.D. and you could still write this. Would you say CD'? No, so don't write CD's. (You'd write the CDs' cases though, following the possession rules below - as in the cases of the CDs.)

The most important thing to realise with plurals is that if you would not have had an apostrophe for the singular, you do not for the plural. Because apostrophes play no part in forming a plural word.

20s, 1960s, 80s etc do not have an apostrophe because there is no abbreviation going on.

Some unusual abbreviations, such as 'em for them, would have an apostrophe, simply as a favour to the reader, who might otherwise be confused.

To repeat: nowadays, generally speaking, you do not normally need an apostrophe to denote letters missed from the beginning or end of a word, unless it's required for clarity, but you do when TWO become one, such as can't - orginally can not.


And the only thing to remember about the position of the apostrophe is that it comes immediately after the "possessor". So, if the possessor is plural, put the apostrophe after the plural form.

So, the dog's / dogs' dinner:
The dog's dinner - the thing possessing the dinner is the dog (one dog) so the apostrophe goes after dog.
The dogs' dinner - the things possessing the dinner are the dogs (more than one dog) so the apostrophe goes after the dogs.

If you remember to think "after the possessor", you won't have a problem with, for example, the Joneses' house = the house of the Joneses. The Joneses are the possessors.

Exceptions? One exception and one extra point.

EXCEPTION. These words never, ever, ever have an apostrophe, even though they look as though they should**:
theirs, ours, yours, hers (or, more obviously, his and whose)

Never. Got it? Don't worry about why - just remind yourself that the word mine doesn't have an apostrophe so why should theirs etc? What, because there's an s at the end of theirs? So? We're not thinking about s, remember? S has nothing to do with apostrophes. As I said.

And remember: it's ONLY has an apostrophe for abbreviation - it is or it has

** Technically, these are not even exceptions: in fact, since the object possessed does not come immediately after the word, there's no need for an apostrophe, within the rules. You don't say yours house, do you?

EXTRA POINT. Sometimes you have to notice that the "thing possessed" is omitted, or "understood". For example, I'm going round to Jane's. This has an apostrophe because we mean Jane's place or Jane's house. Another example would be, This is Sally's, not Joan's, book.

CAUTION - be careful to remember the rule with irregular plurals. This is another reason why you must focus on "after the possessor". For example, the children's party or the people's princess - both follow the rule as long as you are not doing that "before the s or after the s thing."

That's it in terms of rules. But of course, that's not quite the end....

...because there are some occasions when the rules are hard to interpret. Or even a bit fluffy and annoying.

A few examples:
1. three weeks' time - because we mean a period of time of three weeks BUT we say in three weeks with NO apostrophe
2. for goodness' sake - because it is for the sake of goodness
3. Accounts Department does not need one, because Accounts is being used as an adjective, describing the department, not indicating possession
4. three hours late - does not need one, because late is not a noun and can't be said to be owned*** by anything.

[***Thanks to eagle-eyed Dave Bartlett for correcting my confused brain there.]

Sometimes it's entirely up to the person creating the phrase. For example, the people of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook decided that they meant many writers and artists; but the people of The Writer's Handbook decided to refer to one writer. Both equally correct.

James' or James's?? Bit of an argument there. Usage tends to favour James' in the US and James's in the UK. No doubt this will change and I wonder in which direction...?

And there are times when it comes down to usage and all you can do is look the phrase up on a reputable website and see what the experts say: there's no way I can go through everything here. If in doubt, check.

Do you want to do a quiz? There's one at the bottom of this article here, which also, I see, gives a clear list of apostrophe rules. Between my explanations (especially the "after the possessor" rule) you should have it cracked. There's some nifty footwork on gerunds, too.

Now, I know I haven't answered every possible question, but it would get too bitty. Get your head round the rules first and use sensible internet searching for individual phrases that pose you a problem.

Here are some more resources that seem good at a quick glance:

I also just came across this recent Litopia podcast - I haven't listened but it's Eve Harvey so it will be good.

That's it. You're armed. Go out and prepare to laugh at greengrocers.


Jayne said...

Thanks for this, Nicola. You explain everything so well - if only I'd had an English teacher like you! Oh to have been taught properly, instead of sharing one book between two and having to wait eons for the other person to reach the end of the page. I was always the one (annoyingly) peeking ahead. But enough of that - my main problem with apostrophes was mistakes like 1960's - but that is all in hand now. Will go try the quiz. :)

Old Kitty said...


This reminds me of an episode of The Apprentice. I think one of the tasks for each team was to device a card celebrating "Women's Day".

One team spent so much arguing where the apostrophe went in Women's/Womens'. The team leader ended up ringing the British Library at one point for grammatical guidance.


They should have asked you and saved one of them from being fired by grumpy Sir Alan!

Take care

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Thank you thank you thank you. I see these mistakes all the time and they drive me nuts - in manuscripts and blogs. It really undermines a writer's credibility to make mistakes like this.

Can I also add: if you put 'dos and don'ts' in a blog post, it only needs one apostrophe. Even though it looks funny.

(Old Kitty, I remember that episode of The Apprentice. I seem to remember that after they got the advice from the British Library, they still carried on discussing it. A clear case of characters so dumb and arrogant they couldn't let anyone else be right.)

Unknown said...

Nice one Nicola. I can't remember ever having problems with apostrophes myself (except for spelling it,) but my kids always got confused so I know how difficult it is to explain to people.

A small point though: As you're emphasising the importance of 'the possessive' your statement that reads "three hours late - does not need one, because late is not a noun and so can't be said to own anything" could be a little confusing. It should read: "three hours late - does not need one, because late is not a noun and so can't be said to BE OWNED BY anything."

Excellent posting. I look forward to more.

Dan Holloway said...

Ooh, a post after my heart. Nice to see you touching on full stops as well. That's one that really gets me, especially in Mr and Mrs - technically there could be some sort of shortening punctuation anywhere but at the end where people - including Word's spellchecker - insist on putting it.

Emma Darwin said...

Good post Nicola.

I know you can't go into every tiny corner, but one point throws people, (including me for years):

possesive his, hers, its don't have apostrophes, but at risk of sounding old fashioned, one's does, as in, "one has one's pride"

Cliff said...

"That's it. You're armed. Go out and prepare to laugh at greengrocers."

Don't you mean. "That's it. You're armed with apostrophes. Go out and laugh at the greengrocer's"? :)

Daniel Blythe said...

I remember that Apprentice episode. I think it was actually "Singles' Day" and it was the Times they phoned!

steeleweed said...

As a computer maven in my day job, I deal with a lot of acronyms. For example, the process of booting a particular computer is called Initial Program Load, or IPL, with IPL being (grammatically) a verb.
I would write that I IPL'd the system - I would not say IPLed, although that would be implied, with the apostrophe marking the elided 'e' (Egad! Another use of apostrophe, at least in the US, where " is only used for actual speech).

Jemi Fraser said...

Love it! Great post - good clarity. I may just have to quote you :)

Simon Kewin said...

Great post, all very clear. I must admit I'm one of those people who grumble when I see a sign saying, for example, "Childrens Hospital". What, it's a hospital for "childrens" is it?

And let's not even mention "fo'c'sle"!

Anonymous said...

Great poat Nicola! I now know a lot more about apostrophes than I thought there was to know! Could you possibly become my English teacher?! Lol :)


Clare said...

I concur with Isla's comments, especially if you could persuade her that there is such a thing as overuse of exclamation marks!!!!
(Don't think her spelling is too bad or that she was congratulating you on your prowess at poetry -"poat" was a post typo.)

Isla's mum

Jesse Owen said...

Great post, this makes much more sense to me than my English teacher did.

catdownunder said...

Yes ma'am. I will try to leave that tiny cat hair in the right place!

Anonymous said...

There was a mistaken 'It's' in an Observer standfirst this morning - see what happens when people cut back on sub-editors! :)

@ Old Kitty - I never saw that but I bet Margaret wasn't too impressed with them!

Alex G said...

Great post - intend to direct a lot of my students to it.
My favourite ever errant apostrophe is the one I once saw on a sign for "Coven't Garden". Perhaps someone's idea of a joke...

Dan Holloway said...

@Alex, my wife, who is from Yorkshire, concurs that the apostrophe is in the wrong place. It should of course be "Coven t'garden"

@DanielB - gawd, yes I remember that episode of the Apprentice - I haven't laughed, sworn and screamed at the telly so much simultaneously in years

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

LOL! Love this post! A very clear explanation. Thanks!

Nicola Morgan said...

I didn't see the Apprentice episode but I must have seen a clip becaause that rings a bell. Grrrrrr!

Dave Bartlett - you are quite right. Thanks for pointing that out - I confused myself! I will go and edit it and credit you.

Emma - I'd say that there's a difference between "his" etc and "one's". "His" is a word in its own right, whereas "one's" does mean "of one" in the same sense as "jane's" means "of Jane". "Theirs" doesn't mean "of their", for example, or "his" "of hi". The only apparent oddity there is "hers", but that's only an oddity because "her" forms the function of both possessive "her" and objective "her", whereas the objective forms of "theirs" and "ours" are their and "our". Or have I got that wrong? I may have! In any case, I think sometimes it's best not to think too much about the rule and just remember the use. Do you agree?

Cliff - hehe! Or even possibly greengrocers', since there are so many of them doing it!

Steeleweed - I agree that such words throw up a slight issue. However, there's no rule that says you have to add "ed" to form a past tense - lots of verbs don't. Therefore, there's no good reason to use an apostrophe to denote an omitted e, since there might not be one. I would favour either re-forming the sentence to avoid the issue or simply saying IPLd. However, I also feel that since computer people invented such words, they can work out how they would like to form the past tense of a verb and I don't think I want to interfere!

Isla - no!

Clare - I quite liked the idea of being a poat, actually! Re exclamations marks - I have just written about that for something else, so I could indeed do a post. (!)

Simon - fo'c'sle - a very good eg of how usage has changed and relaxed! (Thank goodness)

Alex - you have got to be joking?? Coven't Garden???!!

Thanks for comments, everyone - glad it all made sense.

Emma Darwin said...

Nicola, yes, you're right, that is why one's is as it is...

"I think sometimes it's best not to think too much about the rule and just remember the use. Do you agree?"

I think it depends how your mind works: some people find that having reasons for the rules is one more thing to confuse you, for others (like me) understanding the reasons for the rules is the only way you ever remember anything and can put it into practice. Yes, I'm afraid I'm the infuriating back-of-the-class child who's saying, 'Yes, but miss, I don't understand WHY you have to do it this way...'

Stroppy Author said...

Ooh, lovely post - and a super opportunity for pedantry! Can I add a couple more pedantic points? Please? Go on.... you know how I like to be pedantic :-) I'll buy you chocolate. Or even chocolate shoes from M&S...

Your two reasons are actually the same reason. The original form forwriting a plural was:
'Chaucer his book' and this was abbreviated to 'Chaucer's book' with the apostrophe replacing the elided 'hi' of 'his' (and yes, they used it for her things as well because they were all sexist then).

And another thing.... the greengrocer's apostophe has a legitimate origin, I'm afraid, and it is in avocado's. When South America was discovered and we adopted words such as tornado and potato, the plurals were originally written 'tornado's' and 'potato's' because an English plural of such a word would require an 'e' before the 's' and this was omitted. So an apostrophe was used. You can see 'tornado's' on 16th century maps (and it's still current in Danish, I believe). Now, of course, we do write 'potatoes' as we consider 'potato' an English word. So NOW the greengrocer is wrong to write 'potatoe's', though could just about acceptably write 'potato's'. But never 'apple's', obviously :-)

catdownunder said...

Emma, I was just thinking exactly the same thing! I always want to know why.

Daniel Blythe said...

At the health centre in Deepcar, near Sheffield, they have a "Visitor's Car Park". I'm guessing it does not consist of just one parking space.

Glynis Peters said...

Brilliant, thank you Nicola.

I am linking this out from my blog.

Anonymous said...

James' or James's?? Bit of an argument there. Usage tends to favour James' in the US and James's in the UK. No doubt this will change and I wonder in which direction...?

Actually, it is a US thing as well, oh fellow writing buddy.

Theresa Milstein said...

I love reading about apostrophes and this is a great post. But between you and Lynne Truss, I sometimes get more confused. There are a few differences in apostrophe use between England and America.

Frances Garrood said...

Hi behlerblog - it's definitely James's as James is not a pleural. I have this problem with my name as it also ends in an s, and lots of people put the apostrophe in the wrong place.

Anonymous said...

Crystal clear. Thank you.

I'd like to add something of my own about apostrophes. It's not a grammatical rule but a technical/procedural guideline. It goes like this:

Don't use single quotes (apostrophes) for speech marks!

Why? Because if you or an editor ever decides to change them into double quotes ("), then a global search-and-replace will make a pig's ear of the manuscript by trashing all the genuine apostrophes as well as the ones you used as speech marks. I know because I've done this myself.

sanjeet said...

I think one of the tasks for each team was to device a card celebrating "Women's Day".
data entry work from home

Frances Garrood said...

But, Captain Black, my publisher insists on single quotation marks (apostrophes) for speech, so I have no choice!

Anonymous said...

Frances: Why not write the manuscript with double quotes, then change them (say in a file copy) at the last moment before submission? You can change doubles to singles without worry but not vice-versa, because of the apostrophes.

Of course if you stick to the same publisher and they don't change their rules, then none of it matters and you can use singles for everything.

Just to confuse things even further, there are other symbols you might use for speech, besides single quotes (') and double quotes ("). There are "left" and "right" versions of single and double quotes. Here are some examples (I hope these display correctly, it might depend on your browser):

‘This is in single quotes. Note the left and right versions.’

“This is in double quotes. Note the left and right versions.”

I'll shut up now.

Unknown said...

even teachers get stuck when trying to explain the apostropy,, as in 'The dog's photograph' when we know the dog doesn't own a photograph but 'My mother's photograph' and she certainly does,, help please

Unknown said...

trying to explain to Chinese students which is right and which is wrong,,, as in 'The dog's photograph' when we know the dog doesn't own a photograph but 'My Mother's photograph' she certainly does.
Help please

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi David. So sorry that this comment didn't appear immediately - my blog puts into the spam folder comments on posts that are older than a certain date, and it requires e to go and look at the spam folder, which I rarely do!

The answer is that, grammatically, the dog does "own" the photo. It is "the photo of the dog". In the same way as "the robber's loot" is "the loot of the robber" even though the robber obviously doesn't own it. :)