Would you have spotted the apostrophe error on this sign near my house?
We proofreaders spend a lot of time with apostrophes, and there are at least two reasons for this.
Confusing apostrophe rules
First of all, some of the rules seem contradictory and are therefore difficult to remember. For example, one rule says that apostrophes show ownership, as in the computer’s memory or the town’s growing population. But this doesn’t apply to it (and other pronouns), so there’s no apostrophe in my car is due for its 120,000km service or hey, is this my hat or yours? You can see straightaway that the ‘apostrophe-s’ rule isn’t straightforward.
Apostrophes and context
Secondly, the use of apostrophes can depend on context. Another rule says that apostrophes replace missing letters in contractions (or short forms) like I’m (for ‘I am’), should’ve (for ‘should have’) and don’t (for ‘do not’). Some types of formal writing such as academic papers and business correspondence are very unlikely to use contractions. However they are widely used in less formal texts such as advertising, personal emails and many blogs. On the other hand, it would be really surprising to find an apostrophe in the highly informal language of texting (c u @ 7 dont b l8). So whether or not you need apostrophes can depend on what you’re writing.
The death of the apostrophe?
Some language commentators foresee that apostrophes will eventually disappear from English. But we’re not there yet. The significant thing is that if you miss apostrophes or use them incorrectly in your writing, it’s possible that your readers will make judgements about you. Your credibility, professionalism, products and services, attention to detail, education (and so on) may be called into question. So it’s worth reconsidering your own understanding and use of the apostrophe, and this might be easier than you think.
One way to improve your understanding of apostrophes is to find a website that lays out the rules (and there are plenty of them to choose from). I’d like to suggest a more practical way that you might even enjoy.
Apostrophes in daily use
I’ve taken photos of signage around my town. In this and future posts, I’ll show you a simple rule and some real-life examples of apostrophes in use. As you’ll see, some local signwriters are doing it right. And some aren’t.
So the next time you’re crawling through traffic, don’t let it be a waste of time. Pretend you’re a proofreader and check out the signage around you: it’s on shops, wall, fences, gates and street corners. Ask your passengers what they think. Better still, take a photo of a sign with an apostrophe or missing one. Post it on my Facebook page and let’s start a collection.
Apostrophes for ownership
1. Rule: Add ‘s to singular nouns to show ownership.
Each of these shops ‘belongs to’ a singular someone or organisation called Meg, Beefy and Domino respectively.
Meg, Beefy and Domino all happen to be names, but the same rule applies to singular nouns that aren’t names, as in: the website’s menu, the soil’s moisture level and the lawyer’s fees.
Here are two more signs from my town. Do they follow the ownership rule?
There are two examples on this church sign.
St Mark’s is correct. It works like Meg’s and Beefy’s and Domino’s.
But MATTHEWS GOSPEL is incorrect. Matthew is a singular name (like St Mark and Meg) and the gospel ‘belongs’ to Matthew (in some sense), so an apostrophe is needed. MATTHEW’S GOSPEL would be correct. (Of course, there are other reasons why the apostrophe might be missing here – lack of space; the tile’s been lost etc – but you see the point.)
Can you see the problem on this sign that was outside the pub last week?
February 14th is named for St Valentine. That’s a singular name, so ‘s is needed: Valentine’s Day.
2. Rule: For plural nouns that end in ‘s’, add ‘ to show ownership; For plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’, add ‘s to show ownership.
The school and another local church have got it right. Leaders and seniors are plural nouns, and the apostrophes have been added after the final ‘s’.
Can you see the error on this sign?
The fifth dot point should read Women’s Health.
Even though women is clearly plural, it doesn’t end in ‘s’. It’s like children,mice, geese and others. For such words, we add ‘s to show ownership (the children’s bedtime).
So, how’s your apostrophe knowledge?
Would you employ the signwriter of this blue sign? (More on this in next week’s blog.)
Is there an apostrophe question or example that’s bugging you, or another tricky grammar or punctuation point you feel strongly about?
Please join the conversation in the comments below, and watch out for another important apostrophe rule in next week’s blog.