University of Exeter

Department of Psychology


Lemon's 3d!

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. Stephen Lea
revised 2nd January 1996

This information has been looked at Visitor Status Bartimes.