We generated some good discussion last week off the back of Apostrophe 101 (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tuesday-morning-tips-apostrophe-101-matt-colley/). As a further tribute to the sterling work of John Richards, I thought I’d delve a little deeper into the apostrophe this week; it’ll be a shorter lesson, but one that I hope will allow you to use our little friend with increased confidence.
Above: this is you, smashing the apostrophe.
1. The ‘false friend’
A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as ‘he’, ‘you’ and ‘we’. All pronouns have possessive versions of them: for example, if it belongs to ‘he’, it is ‘his’. If it belongs to ‘we’, it is ‘ours’. These possessive pronouns, although they indicate possession, do not have apostrophes.
This leads us to probably the most common misuse of the apostrophe: its. The word its means ‘belonging to it’, as in: “The tree was bare; it had lost its leaves.” The word only has an apostrophe when it’s a shortened version of it is (as with the instance earlier in this sentence). Where the apostrophe is concerned, it’s clear that it’s going to take a while to perfect its usage. Got it? It’s easy when you know how!
Above: this tree has lost its leaves. Don’t worry, they’ll grow back.
2. Decades of doubt
Last week we touched upon plurals of initials and capital letters. Our CDs and DVDs never take apostrophes (hey, that was quite poetic). Similarly, when we refer to decades we don’t put an apostrophe before the following ‘s’. That’s how it was done in the 1860s, and in the 1960s, and that’s how it’s done in the present day.
However, sometimes we abbreviate those decades. If someone refers to the swinging 60s, you naturally assume they mean the 1960s. However, because we’ve removed the ’19’ from the start, we need to replace these missing figures with an apostrophe. Therefore, it’s correct to say the swinging ’60s.
Similarly, omissions at the start of words also require apostrophes. For instance: ‘Twas the night before Christmas. It’s a contraction of it was, so the apostrophe is required. Some old-school proofreaders will even tell you that we should say the ‘phone is ringing, as it’s a contraction of telephone, but phone is generally considered to have become a word in its own right.
Above: a phone, back in the days when you’d call it a ‘phone.
3. The exception to the rule
There is one occasion where you can use an apostrophe to indicate a plural. If you want to pluralise a single letter, an apostrophe can give some much-needed clarity. The most common example of this is a well-used idiom to imply that you’ve finalised all the necessary details: “I’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts.” Without the apostrophes, as you can see, it’s pretty confusing. We read the word is, rather than seeing it as the plural of the letter i. Therefore, in this scenario, we’d say: “I’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.”
Some style guides also suggest that a plural apostrophe could be added to single numbers, as in a pair of kings and a pair of 7’s, but this is certainly not universally accepted and personally I don’t use the apostrophe in this instance.
Above: I see a pair of 7s.
Thanks for reading – and, as ever, just shout if you need further explanation on anything.