A simple guide to apostrophes

Some time ago, Cape Talk afternoon host John Maytham read out a communication from a listener about a sign seen at a mining event where the apostrophe reared its small and annoying head.

The sign said something like “Worlds’ Mines”. Because of the way in which written English arranges things, the little quote mark (the apostrophe) after the “s” in worlds indicates that there are mines in many worlds, rather mines on our own solitary planet.

This is one of the great dividers between the general population and Sticklers for English Usage (such as myself).

In spoken English the apostrophe is irrelevant – you know what people mean without needing to see punctuation.

In signs in shops that say, for instance, Best Crab’s in the Metropolitan Area (as in the picture above), it doesn’t really matter: hungry people know they are going to get crabs, and that’s all that counts.

But if your job is to write English, or to edit English, you really do need to understand what to do with that little quote mark. (And when you, do you can go through daily life mentally editing out all the misplaced apostrophes you see).

Here’s an edited explanation from an excellent entry in Wikipedia:

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark that serves two main purposes in written English:

* The marking of the omission of one or more letters (as in the contraction of do not to don’t).
* The marking of the possessive case – when one thing belongs to another thing (as in the cat’s whiskers, or the baby’s toy).

There you have it. You insert ‘ when letters are missing, or when there is a possessive. And when the item belongs to more than one thing, the apostrophe goes after the “s”: the dogs’ kennel; the babies’ toys.

The area where the most misplaced apostrophes happen is when there a is plural but no possessive:
The cat’s sat on the mat. Rather: The cats sat on the mat.
The baby’s threw their toys out of the cot. Rather: The babies threw their toys out of the cot.

A trick to figure out where the apostrophe goes in the possessive case:

Turn the phrase round, and insert the hidden “of the” – like this:
If you mean
The mines of the world
Then take the word world and add an ‘s: world’s
But if you mean
The mines of the worlds (if you are perhaps writing a science fiction novel)
Then take the word worlds and add an ‘ after the s: worlds’

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Main picture: Mr.TinMD, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This is an updated version of a post first published in 2013.

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