The apostrophe may be the single most misused piece of punctuation, though it’s got stiff competition from the colon, the ellipsis, and the dash. It appears where it doesn’t belong (the adjective its, any “nonstandard” plural) and goes missing when it’s most needed (ladies’ room, for instance). Most of the errors are the result, quite simply, of an unwillingness or inability to think logically about the function of the apostrophe while writing. When speaking, you don’t need to choose between your and you’re; the right sound emerges and communication is achieved. The written word, however, is more demanding. Each word must be coordinated with its neighbors orthographically (visually) as well as syntactically, and orthography includes punctuation as well as spelling. Word-processing programs have added a new twist to the problem, but let’s deal with human errors first.
The apostrophe serves multiple functions. To begin with, it is the sign of the possessive, and where it appears depends on whether the noun is singular or plural: lady’s and ladies’, man’s and men’s (not mens’), child’s and children’s, and passion’s and passions’ are all correct, but only one of each pair will be correct in a given context.
The need for an apostrophe and its placement are simple to determine if you will just stop and think for a moment, not only about whether your noun is singular or plural, but also about whether it’s acting as a noun or as an adjective. For the phrase (taken from an article in TV Guide) “one of televisions most well-known doctors,” ask yourself: Is televisions meant in a plural sense? No. Is it the object of the preposition of? No, doctors is the object. Ergo, it is acting as an adjective modifying doctors, and the s is a possessive s in need of an apostrophe, not an s forming a plural: “one of television’s most well-known doctors” is what the writer meant. (As an aside, English has a perfectly good word expressly devised to convey the idea of most well; the word is best. “One of television’s best-known doctors” would be a preferable construction.)
This kind of analysis, known as parsing, is becoming a lost art. Like sentence diagramming, it’s a skill most people are happy to forget, assuming it ever made its way into memory—assuming it was ever taught at all, a presumptuous assumption nowadays. Without this skill, it is impossible to construct a sentence logically, which is why there are so many college grads out there writing error-riddled semiliterate prose.
The possessive pronouns are a particular cause of confusion, because, unlike possessives formed from common and proper nouns, possessive pronouns do not have an apostrophe. It’s is a contraction of it is (see below); the pronoun is spelled its. I don’t think I will ever see hi’s, but I have actually seen her’s, their’s, and even the incredibly unlikely its’ in pieces written by Ph.D.’s, so mere length and depth of education are no cure. This is where it helps to know the difference between a contraction and a possessive adjective, pronominal or otherwise. If you don’t, you will be one of the legions of “educated” people who write things like “put laundry in it’s place.” Office Depot’s recent thick catalog displayed “can’t find what your looking for?” prominently atop every right-hand page in large type, and nobody who looked at it prepublication caught the error. It’s not rocket science, people, but you do have to pay attention and remember a few rules.
The apostrophe is also used to form plurals for single letters: one A, ten A’s (not As, which is too easily read as the word as). This is pretty much the only legitimate use of the apostrophe in plurals. (There is one other, and it appears in the previous paragraph. Can you find it?) I’m tired of seeing things like Busy Bee’s (a maid service), stereo’s, and zinnia’s. Generally, when you see ’s, think possessive, not plural. A recent ad for Juicy Couture exhorts us to “Do the Dont’s.” To which I reply, the Dont’s what? As written, dont’s can only be the possessive singular of dont, but dont is not an English word. To use the contraction don’t as a plural noun, just add s: don’ts. The rule applies to numbers as well. The term 1990s refers to the entire decade; 1990’s is a possessive indicating belonging to the specific year 1990. People in their 50s are middle-aged, and lots of them were born in the ’50s (not 50’s or ’50’s).
These examples illustrate another very important function of the apostrophe, to indicate that something has been omitted, whether as a contraction (isn’t, o’clock, who’s, don’t) or as a clipping-off (singin’, ’tis, ’50s). Again, errors such as dont’s result from a failure to analyze words logically and identify their grammatical functions (they knew there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere!). Here too, written expression is more demanding than oral; there is no need to distinguish between dont’s and don’ts in speech. An audience will understand what you mean, but a reader can best (not most well) judge your meaning by interpreting the words you have written down. If the words you’ve written down aren’t the words you mean, communication fails or is compromised.
And finally we arrive at the heart of this installment of Crotchets: the many misuses and abuses of the apostrophe in word pairs joined by and. For example, the phrase rock and roll is usually pronounced as if the and had lost both its opening vowel and final consonant and all that remains is the en sound. The result is written as rock ’n’ roll, because a letter has been clipped from both the front and back of the central word. Two apostrophes are needed, one for each omission, and yet about 95 percent of the time only one is used, and it’s a toss-up on which side of the n it will appear. Illustrating my point nicely are two current TV shows. One, on the History Channel, is called Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey. The other, on Showtime, is a new reality series called Lock ’n Load. They’re both wrong, but the History Channel scores extra wrongness points for the capital N, and Showtime scores evading-the-issue points for capitalizing every letter in the onscreen title. Such ambidextrous nonsense makes me want to lock and load.
Sometimes people go the extra mile and use two apostrophes only to get lost in the punctuation forest. A Frederick, Md., business that deals in sound systems and recording equipment is named, according to their ad in the Yellow Book directory, Make ‘N’ Music. There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start. First off, the name is not a contraction of make and music; the paired apostrophes are wrong. I assume that what the owners intended was making music with the g clipped, or Makin’ Music. The fact that Make ‘N’ Music and Makin’ Music sound about the same is no excuse. This error arises from a failure to think logically enough to transform speech sounds into grammatically and orthographically correct words.
There is another error here as well, a bit harder to notice. The first “apostrophe” has been turned and is actually an opening single quotation mark, transforming its mate to a closing single quotation mark in the process. These linguistically challenged people have not only mistaken the clipped -ing ending for a truncated and; they have taken the wrongly derived n, capitalized it, and then quoted it: Hey, guys, let’s make ‘N’ music, whatever N might be. Are you shuddering? I did when I first encountered this thing. (I’ll say this for the editors/typesetters at Yellow Book: the listing below the ad had two apostrophes. Well done!) But then I realized the people who devised this name had been led astray by a word-processing program that is mindlessly quoting the apostrophe.
On old-fashioned typewriters, there was no differentiation between single quotes (‘/’) and apostrophes (’) or between opening and closing quotes (“/”); the marks went straight up and down ('/', "/"), and the same key sufficed for both. Only printers with sophisticated typesetting equipment had apostrophes that curved right and quote marks that curved left to open and right to close a quote. Early word-processing programs made you enter symbol codes if you wanted curved marks. Later versions gave you curved double quotes, but always in pairs. The first time you hit the double-quote key, it gave you an opening quote; hit it a second time, and you got a closing quote. This worked fine unless you forgot to close a quote somewhere, after which every quote began with a close-quote symbol and ended with an open-quote symbol. I have edited many papers with this error, and it’s a pain to fix. Why is it they never forgot twice and set things back to rights? Why did they never notice all the backwards quote marks?
Current versions of Word operate on a different set of rules. The program decides which mark to use as a function of position. If you hit the double-quote key following a space or to start a new paragraph, you will automatically get an opening-quote symbol. Hit it after any character, and it will give you a close-quote symbol. This works perfectly for double quotes. Unfortunately, the program can’t differentiate between an apostrophe and a single quote. The same rules apply: hit the key after a space, you get an opening single quote that curves left; hit it after a character, and you get a closing single quote or apostrophe, which are identical, curving right. Most of the time this works just fine, but few people notice when it goes awry.
Most contractions occur in the middle of the words—isn’t, didn’t, you’re, let’s, o’clock—and thus the apostrophe appears correctly oriented as you type. But if you’re typing something like ’tis,’50s, or this ’n’ that, where the apostrophe follows a space, the program is going to give you an opening single quote, viz., ‘tis, ‘50s, this ‘n’ that. The only way around this is to type the symbol immediately after the word and then go back and insert the space (this’n’ that → this ’n’ that); the program will give you an apostrophe and will not change it when you add the space. However, most people will not notice that they have a single opening quotation mark instead of an apostrophe, and thus I have been noticing nonsense such as Loud ‘N Clear (a personal sound amplifier) and Make ‘N’ Music everywhere I look. It’s not bad enough that few recognize the need for two apostrophes; now they need to recognize that they haven’t got even one. And what is it with the capital N? The word and is never capitalized, and its remnant certainly doesn’t merit such star treatment. Even the Rock ’n’ Roll Queen gets a lowercase n.
And so I beg you to unquote your apostrophe and apostrophize your quote, to say “O quote, I need you to do an about-face and become an apostrophe, lest my poor orthography make me the object of scorn and ridicule.” It will not want to cooperate, you must make it do your will, but in the end you may prevail and take pride in your awareness and your right(eous)ness.
Over ’n’ out!
This is article 11 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson