The Dreaded Apostrophe


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Possessives

The same rule applies:

Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

Plural Initials
How often have you seen signs that say CD's for sale or similar? The MP's voted against the bill is another example.
These are plurals, nothing is missing, so the correct form is CDs and MPs. CDs were first released in the 1980s and DVDs in the 1990s.
If your child writes that he or she gained four As at A level, be pleased also that he or she knows when not to use an apostrophe. If they tell you they got four A's, I just hope English was not one of them!

To understand this, we need first to take a trip back in time....

The Olden Days

English is an old language, but an ever changing one. Many people today find the English of Shakespeare hard to understand, but it is actually relatively modern in structure compared with English from earlier periods. It is to these earlier periods of English we must look for the roots of modern apostrophe usage.

I am also going to simplify matters, and having studied linguistics I know this may be oversimplification for some. But here the aim is to explain the dreaded apostrophe, not teach linguistics and old or middle English. So bear with me.

English is a Germanic language. It shares much in common with modern German, although much vocabulary was later imported from French/Latin. Quick example: the German for foot is Fuss, for ball is Ball, so football is Fussball. We get the word pedestrian from the French/Latin side though. Some Germanic usage survives in English, particularly in North American English where some archaic forms remain in use - gotten for instance. The -en participle ending will be familiar to German speakers.

Like modern German, old forms of English used a genitive case ending to show possession. This is normally -es. For our purposes, that will do. For example, the English The man's coat in German is Der Mantel des Mannes (The coat of the man). Note the -es ending on Mann to show possession.

So now let's (let us) go back a few hundred years in English. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales in the English of his time. What today we call the Knight's Tale he wrote as Knyghtes Tale. He also writes about the Kynges court and Goddes love. But in modern English, of all varieties, the "e" is missing. Coupled with modern spelling, Kynges court becomes King's court and Goddes love becomes God's love. The old -es possessive form in English is now missing, and as I am sure you will now remember we

use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

We can use this insight to help us place apostrophes correctly. Remember above I talked about Parents children. Does the apostrophe come before or after the "s"? If we pretend we are Chaucer, it becomes easy.

 Pretend ChaucerModern correct form
One parent and his or her childrenparentes childrenparent's children
All parents and all their kidsparentses childrenparents' children

Kids and Goats
When using "kids" to talk about children, I have in the past been told not to compare children with goats, even by school inspectors who should know better.
Kid, in this context is nothing to do with goats, but is an old English form which shares a common root with the German Kind (child, pronounced kint).

In the plural we could say parents's and drop only the "e" but having "s's" seems a bit silly so the whole es goes missing to be replaced by the apostrophe, leaving parents' as the plural possessive form.

Take the boys coat. Unless several boys share a coat (unlikely) we can assume this is one boy and his coat, so the boyes coat shortens to the boy's coat.

If we take the boys coats we are not sure now whether this is one boy with a lot of coats or lots of boys and all their coats.


 Pretend ChaucerModern correct form
one boy with a lot of coatsboyes coatsboy's coats
lots of boys and their coatsboyses coatsboys' coats

In the first case, we have one boy to which we add the -es to show possession, to give us boyes, Today, the -e is missing, replaced by the apostrophe to give boy's so the apostrophe ends up before the "s".

In the second case, we have a plural boys to which we add the -es to show possession, to give us boyses, Today, the -es is missing, replaced by the apostrophe to give boys' so the apostrophe ends up after the "s".

Something that gets people confused is a word like children. (Making a plural with -en is another Germanic throwback.) Because they are not using the correct rule they assume that because children is plural, the apostrophe must come after the "s". So we get childrens' which is wrong. But my consistent system takes care of that. Think it through - take the example childrens toys. We can safely guess there is more than one child involved here because of the word children.

 Pretend ChaucerModern correct form
childrens toyschildrenes toyschildren's toys

The "e" goes missing and the apostrophe ends up correctly before the "s".

The Book of Cassius

People sometimes get confused when a singular noun ends in the letter 's'. Because of that 's', panic sets in and people wonder which rule to apply. But remember, there is only one rule. Use it.

In the case of a book belonging to Cassius, we will use the 'Chaucer' rule to place the apostrophe.

 Pretend ChaucerModern correct form
Cassiuss bookCassiuses bookCassius's book

Just apply the rule and the apostrophe will end up in the correct place. This clearly demonstrates that Cassius is singular, i.e. there is just one Cassius we are talking about, and he possesses the book.

Its and lt's

People are often confused about possessive pronouns which makes their heads spin! Pronouns are words used instead of a noun. He instead of John, she instead of Sally, it instead of the car etc. Each of these pronouns also has a genitive form denoting possession, his, hers and its.

This last one often causes people problems, asking why doesn't its have an apostrophe when it shows possession, but it does when it's a contraction of it is? But now we know that one is a contraction and the other a possessive pronoun that already is in the genitive case.

It's is short for it is or it has as you see in the table on the previous page. Its means belonging to it, as in "It's probably spun off its neck by now". If you are uncertain which to use, say it in full, e.g. "The world spins on it is axis" is plainly silly, so one should use its rather than it's.

Now can see that there really is only one rule!

Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

Scattergun notice
Scattergun approach taken with this notice
Is it addressed to Parents, Guardians, Children? It is not clear who belongs to whom in this. No apostrophes are necessary.
Person's should be persons - it is simply a plural, meaning more than person. Although why not just say People?
Year's again is a plural, just more than one year. So years is correct.
I'm not sure why there are so many capital letters, but that's another issue.
We have covered both contractions - things like cannot becoming can't - as well as possession, where the apostrophe stands in for the missing possessive word ending, no longer used in modern English. And you should now even understand why in the case of possession, it sometimes comes before the "s" and other times after the "s".

Using the scattergun approach simply displays a lack of education which may not be the writer's fault, and a lack of desire to find out, which is, and is ignorant. But now you know! So why not try out your new found knowledge?

You can print out the following little story (PDF file) which is designed to test the use of the dreaded apostrophe - dreaded no longer I hope.

I am not going to mark it - you're grown up enough to have got this far so you can mark your own. (Note the use of you're and your in that sentence.) If you cheat, only you lose.

Good luck.

I welcome comments about this approach. If you wish to contact me, email me on

You can read some comments at the end of this website.

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