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


Page contents:

possession
   general
   measurements of space and time
   hyphenated compounds
   shared possession
   possessive pronouns
   organisations and street names
   appositives
   the of-possessive
   attributive nouns (nouns as adjectives)
   the double possessive
contraction

 

Possession

General

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.

Similarly –

      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  

      Moses’ tablets

      Cervantes’ Don Quixote

      Jesus’ disciples

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)


Measurements of space and time

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

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-lawscourts-martial, not court-martials. Closed (one-word) compounds take the plural s at the end of the word:
spoonfuls, not spoonsful.


Shared possession

When two nouns joined by and take shared possession, the apostrophe s comes after the second noun only –

      William and Marys reign (not Williams and Marys 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)

but –

      Claires and Stephen’s parents (unshared possession)

When more than two nouns share possession, the of-possessive is clearer than the apostrophe s

      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.


Possessive pronouns

With the sole exception of one’s, possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes –

      yours

      hers

      ours

      theirs

      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.


Organisations and street names

Business organisations, clubs and trade unions are a law unto themselves. Where apostrophes are appropriate, some organisations use them –

      Musicians’ Union

      Prison Governors’ Association

      Professional Footballers’ Association

      Sainsburys

but most do not 

      Barclays Bank

      Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

      Fire Brigades Union

      Fire Officers Association

      Harrods

      Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association

      Lloyds TSB

      Morrisons

      Queens Park Rangers

      Selfridges

      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


Appositives

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 Petersons discography

or 

      Oscar Peterson the Canadian jazz pianists discography.

(For the use of commas with appositives, click here.)

 

The of-possessive

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
things 
 

      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

      death’s door

      life’s ambition

and in some cases of more than one syllable –

      an evening’s entertainment

      Britain’s membership

      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


Attributive nouns (nouns as adjectives)

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)

      house prices

      picture frame

      management decisions

      TV reception


The double possessive

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.

 

Contraction

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– I would, I had
      he he is, he has
      Jane Jane is, Jane has
      it it is, it has
      who who is, who has
      they they would, they had
      were  we are

      interrogative adverbs

      how’show is, how has
      who’d who would
      what’rewhat are
      when’swhen is, when has
      where’swhere is, where has
      why’d why did

      not

      aren’tare not
      can’tcannot
      don’tdo not
      won’t will not (contracted from the older woll not)
      couldn’tcould not
      wouldn’t would not

The apostrophe is also used in narrative to signify other contractions found in colloquial and substandard speech –

      Nothin’ doin’!

      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 greengrocers apostrophe
   because of its routine appearance on price tags, often with an exclamation mark thrown in for good measure:
Fresh Carrots!, Prices slashed!
   Some authorities, however, make an exception by endorsing the use of the apostrophe to pluralise letters and words qua letters and words:
   don
t want to hear any ifs and buts, 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: MAsMPs, 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 tsthere are three is in inimical...’ (R. W. Burchfield (ed.), The New Fowlers 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 
   2012)