When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word its. I put an apostrophe in when I shouldn’t have, and it was a very traumatic moment in my young life. So when listeners including Katy from Australia, Kristi from Washington, D.C., Amy, and Jon wrote in asking me to talk about proper apostrophe usage, I had a flicker of self-doubt. But I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can’t change my past, I feel the next best thing would be to save all of you from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
What Are Apostrophes Used For?
Apostrophes have two main uses in the English language: they stand in for something that’s missing, and they can be used to make a word possessive.
Apostrophes first showed up in the 1500s as a way to indicate omissions. Today, the most common place to find this kind of apostrophe is in contractions such as can’t (for can not), that’s (for that is), and it’s (for it is*), but they can also be used in fun ways. If you’re writing fiction, you might use apostrophes to eliminate letters to formulate a character’s dialect; for example, “I saw ’em talkin’ yonder,” with apostrophes to indicate that the speaker said ’em instead of them (t-h-e-m), and talkin’ instead of talking (t-a-l-k-i-n-g).
It’s no wonder that people are confused about apostrophes, because new uses were introduced in the 1600s and again in the 1700s, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people even tried to set down firm rules.
Apostrophes Indicate Possession
One major new use for the apostrophe was to indicate possession. For example, the aardvark’s pencil, where there is an apostrophe s at the end of aardvark, means that the pencil belongs to the aardvark. It does not mean the plural of aardvark, and it does not mean “The aardvark is pencil.”
An interesting side note is that it doesn’t seem so strange that an apostrophe s is used to make words possessive once you realize that in Old English it was common to make words possessive by adding es to the end. For example, the possessive of fox would have been foxes, which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the e with an apostrophe to make fox’s in the possessive case. So apostrophe s for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the e was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone eventually forgot all about the missing e.
Common Apostrophe Errors and How to Avoid Them
Normally, I would assume that most people understand apostrophe basics and move on, but there are too many examples to the contrary for me to ignore them. Let’s get to the basics . . .
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