Grammar: The Apostrophe [ ’ ]
The apostrophe has two legitimate uses: to indicate possession (Gordon's House) and contraction (can't for cannot). A third use, the pluralisation
of words and letters in such expressions as mind your p's and q's, is controversial.1
measurements of space and time
organisations and street names
attributive nouns (nouns as adjectives)
the double possessive
Possession need not imply literal ownership; it can simply mean of –
Martin’s past was a mystery to his friends.
(The past of Martin)
All the staff assembled to hear the principal’s address.
(The address of the principal)
She instantly recognised the voice on the phone as David’s.
(The voice of or belonging to David)
Where possessive nouns ending in s make a harsh ziz sound, the option is available of using an apostrophe without an additional s. Thus –
Jones’s house is the one at the end of the street
may instead be written –
Jones’ house is the one at the end of the street.
Gareth Edwards was one of Wales’s (or Wales’) finest rugby players.
But the traditional practice is to retain the additional s (Jones's house) unless the resulting pronunciation would be particularly ungainly –
Cervantes’ Don Quixote
The possessive apostrophe is used in the same way with plural nouns in cases where the spelling changes from the singular (e.g. person to people,
woman to women) –
the people’s will
the women’s room
but most plurals take -s or -es endings, in which cases the apostrophe comes after the s –
the Joneses’ children
the dogs’ home
the teachers’ union
The dog’s home would be the home of a particular dog, while the teacher’s union would be the union a particular teacher had chosen to join.
Especially notorious are y-ending nouns that take -ies in the plural, such as company and country. The writer intends to signify the singular but
mistakenly uses the plural –
the companies personnel manager (incorrect)
the company’s personnel manager (correct)
the countries economy (incorrect)
the country’s economy (correct)
When the plural of such words is intended, the apostrophe follows the usual rule of coming after the s –
the companies’ register (the register of more than one company)
the countries’ ambassadors (the ambassadors of more than one country)
The possessive apostrophe is also used for measurements of time –
a week’s time
two weeks’ time
six months’ jail
twenty years’ service
As noted above, however, care should be taken not to confuse singular and plural: two week’s time would be illogical.
Measurements of space usually take the of-possessive rather than the apostrophe s: a distance of three miles rather than three miles’ distance.
Hyphenated compounds take the apostrophe at the end of the construction, not within it –
She dreaded having to confess that she had broken her mother-in-law’s vase.
But the apostrophe s should not be confused with the plural s. In the plural, hyphenated compounds take the s-ending after the principal noun:
mothers-in-law, not mother-in-laws; courts-martial, not court-martials. Closed (one-word) compounds take the plural s at the end of the word:
spoonfuls, not spoonsful.
When two nouns joined by and take shared possession, the apostrophe s comes after the second noun only –
William and Mary’s reign (not William’s and Mary’s reign)
Laurel and Hardy’s antics
Lennon and McCartney’s songs
Both nouns take an apostrophe s only when possession is unshared. Thus we would write –
Claire and Stephen’s children (shared possession)
Claire’s and Stephen’s parents (unshared possession)
Don’t make it the business of any Tom, Dick and Harry
rather than –
Don’t make it any Tom, Dick and Harry’s business.
With the sole exception of one’s, possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes –
its (it’s is a contraction of it is, not a possessive pronoun. See contraction below.)
Thus we end letters with Yours sincerely, not Your's sincerely.
Business organisations, clubs and trade unions are a law unto themselves. Where apostrophes are appropriate, some organisations use them –
Prison Governors’ Association
Professional Footballers’ Association
but most do not –
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home
Fire Brigades Union
Fire Officers Association
Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association
Queens Park Rangers
United Nations Headquarters
(Asda and Tesco are just that.)
Some town and city councils are among the culprits, too, with such ungrammatical street names as Bishops Gardens, Cobblers Lane, Martins
Row and Queens Street.2
An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that defines or characterises another. In the phrase my cousin George, for example, George is the
appositive of my cousin. In the phrase Oscar Peterson, the Canadian jazz pianist, the noun phrase the Canadian jazz pianist is the appositive
of Oscar Peterson.
When we use the apostrophe in such cases, it is added to the second element only –
My cousin, George’s hobby is restoring old cars.
It is usually clearer to give the apostrophe to the principal noun in this way rather than to the description –
George, my cousin’s hobby is restoring old cars.
But with noun phrases, it is often clearer still to use the of-possessive –
The discography of Canadian jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson
rather than –
The Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s discography
Oscar Peterson the Canadian jazz pianist’s discography.
(For the use of commas with appositives, click here.)
The of-possessive is the alternative to the apostrophe s, but which to use is more a matter of convention than rule. Either might be used with living
my sister’s friend
a friend of my sister
but the apostrophe s is more common –
Jack’s anger (rather than the anger of Jack)
her cousin’s inheritance
the dog’s collar
Abstract and inanimate nouns, on the other hand, usually take the of-possessive –
the top of the morning (rather than the morning’s top)
a bottle of milk
the boot of the car
the favourableness of the situation
my word of honour
but the the apostrophe s is used with many nouns of one syllable –
a year’s time (rather than a time of a year)
ten pounds’ worth
a day’s pay
and in some cases of more than one syllable –
an evening’s entertainment
the country’s economy
With inanimate objects that are customarily assigned a gender, we usually have a choice –
the ship’s captain
the captain of the ship
In many cases, we naturally avoid both the apostrophe s and the of-possessive and instead use the possessing noun as an adjective or an attribute
of another noun. For example, we would say the bathroom window rather than the bathroom's window or the window of the bathroom. In this context,
the word bathroom is an attributive noun describing the window. In the same way, we say –
potato peel (not potato's peel or peel of the potato)
The double possessive is the use of both the apostrophe s and the of-possessive. Instead of my sister's friend or a friend of my sister, we get –
a friend of my sister’s
On the face of it, the tautology should proclaim the usage to be incorrect, but the double possessive has long been accepted in English idioms.
As is often pointed out, it is a useful device for distinguishing the meanings of such expressions as a picture of my father and a picture of my
father's. On most occasions, however, the double possessive is not necessary. These two phrases, for example, are more succinctly expressed
without the apostrophe s –
an admirer of Bertrand Russell’s
a habit of my mother’s
But note that use of the double possessive is confined to people. It cannot be used with other nouns: a student of philosophy, not a student of
philosophy's; a friend of the family, not a friend of the family's.
The second use of the apostrophe is to signify contraction (the omission of letters or numbers), but these are acceptable only in informal writing
and quoted speech. In formal scripts, the words or numbers should be written or figured in full.
The most common contractions unite the verbs with other parts of speech. For example –
nouns and pronouns
I’d – I would, I had
he’s – he is, he has
Jane’s – Jane is, Jane has
it’s – it is, it has
who’s – who is, who has
they’d – they would, they had
we’re – we are
how’s – how is, how has
who’d – who would
what’re –what are
when’s – when is, when has
where’s – where is, where has
why’d – why did
aren’t – are not
can’t – cannot
don’t – do not
won’t – will not (contracted from the older woll not)
couldn’t – could not
wouldn’t – would not
The apostrophe is also used in narrative to signify other contractions found in colloquial and substandard speech –
S’pose it’ll be rainin’ soon.
I never seen ’im!
Apostrophes, however, are no longer used with truncated nouns. Today, we would write bus, lab and phone, rather than 'bus, lab' and 'phone.
But all contractions should formally be written in full unless they are well established: advertisement rather than ad; demonstration rather than
demo; but bus rather than omnibus, piano rather than pianoforte. (See clippings.)
Traditionally, a few of the constructions are contracted to o’, most commonly hours of the day –
one o’clock (one of the clock)
will-o’-the-wisp (will of the wisp)
The apostrophe is also used informally to indicate the missing century from calendar years –
the recession of the ’80s (1980s)
the revolutions of ’48 (1848)
1 The apostrophe is incontestably incorrect to signify plurals. In this capacity it has been dubbed the grocer’s or the greengrocer’s apostrophe
because of its routine appearance on price tags, often with an exclamation mark thrown in for good measure: Fresh Carrot’s!, Price’s slashed!
Some authorities, however, make an exception by endorsing the use of the apostrophe to pluralise letters and words qua letters and words: I
don’t want to hear any if’s and but’s, rather than ifs and buts. Burchfield, for example, writes, ‘Though once commonly used in the plural of
abbreviations and numerals (QC’s, the 1960’s), the apostrophe is now best omitted in such circumstances: MAs, MPs, the 1980s, the three Rs,
in twos and threes, Except [sic] that it is normally used in contexts where its omission might possibly lead to confusion, e.g. dot your i’s and
cross your t’s; there are three i’s in inimical...’ (R. W. Burchfield (ed.), The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition, OUP,
Oxford, 1998). On the other hand, the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, John Richards, is resolutely opposed to such uses. As he
points out, there is usually a way of avoiding confusion without this misuse of the apostrophe: Mind your Ps and Qs, the letter i appears three
times in inimical.
2 Two of the most recent councils officially to abandon apostrophes on their street signs are Birmingham and Wakefield. (The Telegraph, 9 June