Lea's 1-page guide to the English apostrophe.
No-one born since about 1950 seems to be able to use the apostrophe
correctly. When I was a child (he writes crustily) it was only greengrocers
who offended the eye with notices like the title of these notes. The
average psychology student nowadays doesn't even see why this is wrong,
whereas in the 1950s I suspect even the greengrocers were only doing
it to be funny. No doubt G. B. Shaw was right when he proposed that
we abolish the wretched thing, but until we do, let's all make a concerted
effort to get it in the right place--and, even more important, not
to get it in the wrong place. Right, children, are you sitting comfortably?
The apostrophe in English has two uses. One is to indicate elision,
to indicate where something has been missed out, usually in a usage
which is or used to be colloquial rather than formal. Examples: won't
= will not; shan't = shall not; let's =
let us. Few people have any difficulty with this, though note
that not every "missing" letter gets an apostrophe.
It's the other usage that gives people trouble, the apostrophe indicating
possession. (Etymologically this may derive from an elision
in the old Germanic genitive formation, but let's not let that bother
us). There are four basic rules, an important exception, and a corollary that I used to think was so obvious it didn't need to be stated but is now violated with depressing frequency.
- Rule 1. Virtually all singular nouns form the possessive by adding
's. Examples: the book's = of the book; John's
= belonging to John.
- Rule 2. Regular plural nouns (those forming the plural by adding s
or es) form the possessive by adding ' at the end of the word.
Examples: the books' = of the books; the Smiths'
= belonging to the Smith family.
- Rule 3. Irregular plural nouns (those forming the plural other than
in s or es) form the possessive by adding 's like
single nouns. Examples: children's games; men's clothes;
sheep's tails; cherubim's wings; rhombi's vertices.
- Rule 4. Singular proper nouns ending in s may (but do not have
to) form a possessive by adding ' rather than 's. This
is more likely (a) the more honorific the name and (b) the more sibilant
it is. So Jesus' childhood is quite likely, as is King Charles'
death, and so is Simon Sissons' wife. But Des's guitar
looks and sounds much better than Des' guitar. This whole usage
is distinctly old fashioned, and it would never be wrong to write Jesus's,
King Charles's or Simon Sissons's.
- EXCEPTION (this causes more trouble than all the rest put together).
Pronouns do not form the possessive with an apostrophe. So
we have his, not he's, her not she's, their
not they's AND, ABOVE ALL, its not it's when we
mean belonging to it. It's exists all right--but it
is a case of elision, not possession, and it means it is not
of it. A slightly more subtle case is the disjunctive possessive
pronoun, e.g. hers or theirs as in this book is theirs;
again this does not require an apostrophe.
- Corollary. Other situations where s is added do not need apostrophes.
So don't add an apostrophe if you're simply making a plural
(Lemon's 3d), putting a verb into the third person (John
run's down the road), or just using a word that happens to end
in s (Queue here for the bus'). If you can't believe
anyone would ever do any of these, there is hope for you. If it hadn't
occurred to you that any of them were wrong, you merely join about
50% of the educated population.
revised 2nd January 1996
This information has been looked at