Typewriter apostrophe

The apostrophe (' or ) character is a punctuation mark, and sometimes a diacritical mark, in languages that use the Latin alphabet and some other alphabets. In English it is used for three purposes:[1]

  • The marking of the omission of one or more letters (as in the contraction of do not to don't).
  • The marking of possessive case of nouns (as in the eagle's feathers, or in one month's time).
  • The marking of plurals of individual characters (e.g. p's and q's).

The word apostrophe comes ultimately from Greek ἡ ἀπόστροφος [προσῳδία] (hē apóstrophos [prosōidía], '[the accent of] turning away or elision'), through Latin and French.[2][3]

According to Unicode, the apostrophe is the same character as the closing single quotation mark, although the semantics of this character are "context-dependent".[4] (When it functions as a closing quotation mark, it is always paired with an opening quotation mark.) Other substitutes such as ´ (acute) and (open single quotation mark) are common due to ambiguous treatment of the apostrophe in early digital typesetting (as explained below). In informal contexts, the typewriter apostrophe is commonly substituted for any of a variety of similar marks and their formal purposes.

Usage in English[edit]

Historical development[edit]

The apostrophe was first used by Pietro Bembo in his edition of De Aetna (1496).[5] It was introduced into English in the 16th century in imitation of French practice.[6]

French practice[edit]

Introduced by Geoffroy Tory (1529),[7] the apostrophe was used in place of a vowel letter to indicate elision (as in l'heure in place of la heure). It was also frequently used in place of a final e (which was still pronounced at the time) when it was elided before a vowel, as in un' heure. Modern French orthography has restored the spelling une heure.[8]

Early English practice[edit]

From the 16th century, following French practice, the apostrophe was used when a vowel letter was omitted either because of incidental elision (I'm for I am) or because the letter no longer represented a sound (lov'd for loved). English spelling retained many inflections that were not pronounced as syllables, notably verb endings (-est, -eth, -es, -ed) and the noun ending -es, which marked either plurals or possessives (also known as genitives; see Possessive apostrophe, below). So an apostrophe followed by s was often used to mark a plural, especially when the noun was a loan word (and especially a word ending in a, as in the two comma's).[6]


The use of elision has continued to the present day, but significant changes have been made to the possessive and plural uses. By the 18th century, apostrophe + s was regularly used for all possessive singular forms, even when the letter e was not omitted (as in the gate's height). This was regarded as representing the Old English genitive singular inflection -es. The plural use was greatly reduced, but a need was felt to mark possessive plural. The solution was to use an apostrophe after the plural s (as in girls' dresses). However, this was not universally accepted until the mid-19th century.[6]

Possessive apostrophe[edit]

The apostrophe is used in English to indicate what is, for historical reasons, misleadingly called the possessive case in the English language. This case was called the genitive until the 18th century and (like the genitive case in other languages) does not always involve possession. For example, in the phrase "little Roger's headmaster", little Roger does not own the headmaster; in the phrase "tomorrow's weather", tomorrow does not/will not own the weather.

In the words of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:[9]

The argument is a case of fooling oneself with one's own terminology. After the 18th-century grammarians began to refer to the genitive case as the possessive case, grammarians and other commentators got it into their heads that the only use of the case was to show possession.... Simply changing the name of the genitive does not change or eliminate any of its multiple functions.

This dictionary also cites a study[10] that found that only 40% of the possessive forms were used to indicate actual possession.[11]

The modern spelling convention distinguishes possessive singular forms (Bernadette's, flower's, glass's, one's) from simple plural forms (Bernadettes, flowers, glasses, ones), and both of those from possessive plural forms (Bernadettes', flowers', glasses', ones').

For singular forms, the modern possessive or genitive inflection is a survival from certain genitive inflections in Old English, for which the apostrophe originally marked the loss of the old e (for example, lambes became lamb's). Until the 18th century, the apostrophe was extensively used to indicate plural forms. Its use for indicating plural "possessive" forms was not standard before the middle of the 19th century.

General principles for the possessive apostrophe[edit]

Summary of rules for most situations

  • Possessive personal pronouns, serving as either noun-equivalents or adjective-equivalents, do not use an apostrophe, even when they end in s. The complete list of those ending in the letter s or the corresponding sound /s/ or /z/ but not taking an apostrophe is ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, and whose.
  • Other pronouns, singular nouns not ending in s, and plural nouns not ending in s all take 's in the possessive: e.g., someone's, a cat's toys, women's.
  • Plural nouns already ending in s take only an apostrophe after the pre-existing s to form the possessive: e.g., three cats' toys.

Basic rule (singular nouns)

For most singular nouns the ending 's is added; e.g., the cat's whiskers.

  • If a singular noun ends with an s-sound (spelled with -s, -se, for example), practice varies as to whether to add 's or the apostrophe alone. A widely accepted practice is to follow whichever spoken form is judged better: the boss's shoes, Mrs Jones' hat (or Mrs Jones's hat, if that spoken form is preferred). In many cases, both spoken and written forms differ between writers (see details below).
  • Acronyms and initialisms used as nouns (CD, DVD, NATO, RADAR, etc.) follow the same rules as singular nouns: e.g., "the TV's picture quality".

Basic rule (plural nouns)

When the noun is a normal plural, with an added s, no extra s is added in the possessive; so the neighbours' garden (there is more than one neighbor owning the garden) is standard rather than the neighbours's garden.

  • If the plural is not one that is formed by adding s, an s is added for the possessive, after the apostrophe: children's hats, women's hairdresser, some people's eyes (but compare some peoples' recent emergence into nationhood, where peoples is meant as the plural of the singular people). These principles are universally accepted.
  • A few English nouns have plurals that are not spelled with a final s but nevertheless end in an /s/ or a /z/ sound: mice (plural of mouse; also in compounds like dormouse, titmouse), dice (when used as the plural of die), pence (a plural of penny, with compounds like sixpence that now tend to be taken as singulars). In the absence of specific exceptional treatment in style guides, the possessives of these plurals are formed by adding an apostrophe and an s in the standard way: seven titmice's tails were found, the dice's last fall was a seven, his few pence's value was not enough to buy bread. These would often be rephrased, where possible: the last fall of the dice was a seven.[note 1]

Basic rule (compound nouns)

Compound nouns have their singular possessives formed with an apostrophe and an added s, in accordance with the rules given above: the Attorney-General's husband; the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports's prerogative; this Minister for Justice's intervention; her father-in-law's new wife.

  • In such examples, the plurals are formed with an s that does not occur at the end: e.g., attorneys-general. A problem therefore arises with the possessive plurals of these compounds. Sources that rule on the matter appear to favour the following forms, in which there is both an s added to form the plural, and a separate 's added for the possessive: the attorneys-general's husbands; successive Ministers for Justice's interventions; their fathers-in-law's new wives.[12] Because these constructions stretch the resources of punctuation beyond comfort, in practice they are normally reworded: interventions by successive Ministers for Justice.[13][14]

Joint or separate possession

For two nouns (or noun phrases) joined by and, there are several ways of expressing possession, including:

1. marking of the last noun (e.g. "Jack and Jill's children")
2. marking of both nouns (e.g. "Jack's and Jill's children").[15]

Some grammars make no distinction in meaning between the two forms.[note 2] Some publishers' style guides, however, make a distinction, assigning the "segregatory" (or "distributive") meaning to the form "John's and Mary's" and the "combinatorial" (or "joint") meaning to the form "John and Mary's".[note 3] A third alternative is a construction of the form "Jack's children and Jill's", which is always distributive, i.e. it designates the combined set of Jack's children and Jill's children.[15]

When a coordinate possessive construction has two personal pronouns, the normal possessive inflection is used, and there is no apostrophe (e.g. "his and her children"). The issue of the use of the apostrophe arises when the coordinate construction includes a noun (phrase) and a pronoun. In this case, the inflection of only the last item may sometimes be, at least marginally, acceptable ("you and your spouse's bank account").[15][16] The inflection of both is normally preferred (e.g. Jack's and your dogs), but there is a tendency to avoid this construction, too, in favour of a construction that does not use a coordinate possessive (e.g. by using "Jack's letters and yours").[15] Where a construction like "Jack's and your dogs" is used, the interpretation is usually "segregatory" (i.e. not joint possession).[16]

With other punctuation; compounds with pronouns

If the word or compound includes, or even ends with, a punctuation mark, an apostrophe and an s are still added in the usual way: "Westward Ho!'s railway station"; "Awaye!'s Paulette Whitten recorded Bob Wilson's story";[20] Washington, D.C.'s museums[21] (assuming that the prevailing style requires full stops in D.C.).

  • If the word or compound already includes a possessive apostrophe, a double possessive results: Tom's sisters' careers; the head of marketing's husband's preference; the master of foxhounds' best dog's death. Many style guides, while allowing that these constructions are possible, advise rephrasing: the head of marketing's husband prefers that.... If an original apostrophe or apostrophe with s occurs at the end, it is left by itself to do double duty: Our employees are better paid than McDonald's employees; Standard & Poor's indices are widely used: the fixed forms of McDonald's and Standard & Poor's already include possessive apostrophes. For similar cases involving geographical names, see below.
  • Similarly, the possessives of all phrases whose wording is fixed are formed in the same way:
For complications with foreign phrases and titles, see below.

Time, money, and similar

An apostrophe is used in time and money references in constructions such as one hour's respite, two weeks' holiday, a dollar's worth, five pounds' worth, one mile's drive from here. This is like an ordinary possessive use. For example, one hour's respite means a respite of one hour (exactly as the cat's whiskers means the whiskers of the cat). Exceptions are accounted for in the same way: three months pregnant (in modern usage, one says neither pregnant of three months, nor one month(')s pregnant).

Possessive pronouns and adjectives

No apostrophe is used in the following possessive pronouns and adjectives: yours, his, hers, ours, its, theirs, and whose.

The possessive of it was originally it's, and it is a common mistake today to write it this way, though the apostrophe was dropped by the early 1800s and authorities are now unanimous that it's can be only a contraction of it is or it has.[22][note 6]

All other possessive pronouns ending in s do take an apostrophe: one's; everyone's; somebody's, nobody else's, etc. With plural forms, the apostrophe follows the s, as with nouns: the others' husbands (but compare They all looked at each other's husbands, in which both each and other are singular).

Importance for disambiguation

Each of these four phrases (listed in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct) has a distinct meaning:

  • My sister's friend's investments (the investments belonging to a friend of my sister)
  • My sister's friends' investments (the investments belonging to several friends of my sister)
  • My sisters' friend's investments (the investments belonging to a friend of several of my sisters)
  • My sisters' friends' investments (the investments belonging to several friends of several of my sisters)

Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with:

  • Those things over there are my husband's. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands'. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands. (I'm married to those men over there.)[23]

Singular nouns ending with an "s" or "z" sound[edit]

Some singular nouns are pronounced with a sibilant sound at the end: /s/ or /z/. The spelling of these ends with -s, -se, -z, -ze, -ce, -x, or -xe.

Many respected authorities recommend that practically all singular nouns, including those ending with a sibilant sound, have possessive forms with an extra s after the apostrophe so that the spelling reflects the underlying pronunciation. Examples include Oxford University Press, the Modern Language Association, the BBC and The Economist.[24] Such authorities demand possessive singulars like these: Senator Jones's umbrella; Tony Adams's friend; my boss's job; the US's economy. Rules that modify or extend the standard principle have included the following:

  • If the singular possessive is difficult or awkward to pronounce with an added sibilant, do not add an extra s; these exceptions are supported by The Guardian,[25] Yahoo! Style Guide,[26] and The American Heritage Book of English Usage.[27] Such sources permit possessive singulars like these: Socrates' later suggestion; or Achilles' heel if that is how the pronunciation is intended.
  • Classical, biblical, and similar names ending in a sibilant, especially if they are polysyllabic, do not take an added s in the possessive; among sources giving exceptions of this kind are The Times[28] and The Elements of Style, which make general stipulations, and Vanderbilt University,[29] which mentions only Moses and Jesus. As a particular case, Jesus' – referred to as "an accepted liturgical archaism" in Hart's Rules – is commonly written instead of Jesus's.

Although less common, some contemporary writers still follow the older practice of omitting the second s in all cases ending with a sibilant, but usually not when written -x or -xe.[30] Some contemporary authorities such as the Associated Press Stylebook[31] recommend or allow the practice of omitting the additional "s" in all words ending with an "s", but not in words ending with other sibilants ("z" and "x").[32] The 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style had recommended the traditional practice, which included providing for several exceptions to accommodate spoken usage such as the omission of the extra s after a polysyllabic word ending in a sibilant, but the 16th edition no longer recommends omitting the possessive "s".[33]

Similar examples of notable names ending in an s that are often given a possessive apostrophe with no additional s include Dickens and Williams. There is often a policy of leaving off the additional s on any such name, but this can prove problematic when specific names are contradictory (for example, St James' Park in Newcastle [the football ground] and the area of St. James's Park in London). However, debate has been going on regarding the punctuation of St James' Park (Newcastle) for some time, unlike St James's Park (London) which is the less contentious version. For more details on practice with geographic names, see the relevant section below.

Some writers like to reflect standard spoken practice in cases like these with sake: for convenience' sake, for goodness' sake, for appearance' sake, for compromise' sake, etc. This punctuation is preferred in major style guides. Others prefer to add 's: for convenience's sake.[34] Still others prefer to omit the apostrophe when there is an s sound before sake: for morality's sake, but for convenience sake.[35]

The Supreme Court of the United States is split on whether a possessive singular noun that ends with s should always have an additional s after the apostrophe, sometimes have an additional s after the apostrophe (for instance, based on whether the final sound of the original word is pronounced /s/ or /z/), or never have an additional s after the apostrophe. The informal majority view (5–4, based on past writings of the justices as of 2006) favoured the additional s, but a strong minority disagrees.[36]

Nouns ending with silent s, x, or z[edit]

The English possessive of French nouns ending in a silent s, x, or z is addressed by various style guides. Certainly a sibilant is pronounced in examples like Descartes's and Dumas's; the question addressed here is whether s needs to be added. Similar examples with x or z: Sauce Périgueux's main ingredient is truffle; His pince-nez's loss went unnoticed; "Verreaux('s) eagle, a large, predominantly black eagle, Aquila verreauxi,..." (OED, entry for "Verreaux", with silent x; see Verreaux's eagle); in each of these some writers might omit the added s. The same principles and residual uncertainties apply with "naturalised" English words, like Illinois and Arkansas.[37]

For possessive plurals of words ending in a silent x, z or s, the few authorities that address the issue at all typically call for an added s and suggest that the apostrophe precede the s: The Loucheux's homeland is in the Yukon; Compare the two Dumas's literary achievements.[note 7] The possessive of a cited French title with a silent plural ending is uncertain: "Trois femmes's long and complicated publication history",[38] but "Les noces' singular effect was 'exotic primitive' ..." (with nearby sibilants -ce- in noces and s- in singular).[39] Compare treatment of other titles, above.

Guides typically seek a principle that will yield uniformity, even for foreign words that fit awkwardly with standard English punctuation.

Possessives in geographic names[edit]

Place names in the United States do not use the possessive apostrophe on federal maps and signs.[40] The United States Board on Geographic Names, which has responsibility for formal naming of municipalities and geographic features, has deprecated the use of possessive apostrophes since 1890 so as not to show ownership of the place.[40][41] Only five names of natural features in the US are officially spelled with a genitive apostrophe: Martha's Vineyard; Ike's Point, New Jersey; John E's Pond, Rhode Island; Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Arizona; and Clark's Mountain, Oregon.[41][42] Some municipalities, originally incorporated using the apostrophe, have dropped it in accordance with this policy; Taylors Falls in Minnesota, for example, was originally incorporated as "Taylor's Falls".[43]

Australia's Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping also has a no-apostrophe policy, a practice it says goes back to the 1900s[44] and which is generally followed around the country.[45]

On the other hand, the United Kingdom has Bishop's Stortford, Bishop's Castle and King's Lynn (among many others) but St Albans, St Andrews and St Helens. London Underground's Piccadilly line has the adjacent stations of Earl's Court in Earls Court and Barons Court. These names were mainly fixed in form many years before grammatical rules were fully standardised. While Newcastle United play football at a stadium called St James' Park, and Exeter City at St James Park, London has a St James's Park (this whole area of London is named after the parish of St James's Church, Piccadilly[46]).

Modern usage has been influenced by considerations of technological convenience including the economy of typewriter ribbons and films, and similar computer character "disallowance" which tend to ignore past standards.[47] Practice in the United Kingdom and Canada is not so uniform.[48]

Possessives in names of organizations[edit]

Sometimes the apostrophe is omitted in the names of clubs, societies, and other organizations, even though the standard principles seem to require it: Country Women's Association, but International Aviation Womens Association;[49] Magistrates' Court of Victoria,[50] but Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. Usage is variable and inconsistent. Style guides typically advise consulting an official source for the standard form of the name (as one would do if uncertain about other aspects of the spelling of the name); some tend towards greater prescriptiveness, for or against such an apostrophe.[note 8] As the case of womens shows, it is not possible to analyze these forms simply as non-possessive plurals, since women is the only correct plural form of woman.

Possessives in business names[edit]

Sign to Green Craigs housing development

Where a business name is based on a family name it should in theory take an apostrophe, but many leave it out (contrast Sainsbury's with Harrods). In recent times there has been an increasing tendency to drop the apostrophe. Names based on a first name are more likely to take an apostrophe, but this is not always the case. Some business names may inadvertently spell a different name if the name with an s at the end is also a name, such as Parson. A small activist group called the Apostrophe Protection Society[51] has campaigned for large retailers such as Harrods, Currys, and Selfridges to reinstate their missing punctuation. A spokesperson for Barclays PLC stated, "It has just disappeared over the years. Barclays is no longer associated with the family name."[52] Further confusion can be caused by businesses whose names look as if they should be pronounced differently without an apostrophe, such as Paulos Circus, and other companies that leave the apostrophe out of their logos but include it in written text, such as Cadwalader's.

Apostrophe showing omission[edit]

An apostrophe is commonly used to indicate omitted characters, normally letters:

  • It is used in contractions, such as can't from cannot, it's from it is or it has, and I'll from I will or I shall.[53]
  • It is used in abbreviations, as gov't for government. It may indicate omitted numbers where the spoken form is also capable of omissions, as '70s for 1970s representing seventies for nineteen-seventies. In modern usage, apostrophes are generally omitted when letters are removed from the start of a word, particularly for a compound word. For example, it is not common to write 'bus (for omnibus), 'phone (telephone), 'net (Internet). However, if the shortening is unusual, dialectal or archaic, the apostrophe may still be used to mark it (e.g., 'bout for about, 'less for unless, 'twas for it was). Sometimes a misunderstanding of the original form of a word results in a non-standard contraction. A common example: 'til for until, though till is in fact the original form, and until is derived from it.
    • The spelling fo'c's'le, contracted from the nautical term forecastle, is unusual for having three apostrophes. The spelling bo's'n's (from boatswain's), as in Bo's'n's Mate, also has three apostrophes, two showing omission and one possession. Fo'c's'le may also take a possessive s – as in the fo'c's'le's timbers – giving four apostrophes in one word.[54] A word which formerly contained two apostrophes is sha'n't for shall not, examples of which may be found in the older works of P G Wodehouse and "Frank Richards" (Charles Hamilton), but this has been superseded by shan't.
    • Shortenings with more apostrophes, such as y'all'dn't've (y'all wouldn't have), are possible, particularly in Southern US dialects.[55]
  • It is sometimes used when the normal form of an inflection seems awkward or unnatural; for example, KO'd rather than KOed (where KO is used as a verb meaning "to knock out"); "a spare pince-nez'd man" (cited in OED, entry for "pince-nez"; pince-nezed is also in citations).
  • An apostrophe's function as possessive or contractive can depend on the grammatical context:
    • We rehearsed for Friday's opening night. (We rehearsed for the opening night on Friday.)
    • We rehearsed because Friday's opening night. (We rehearsed because Friday is opening night. "Friday's" here is a contraction of "Friday is.")
  • Eye dialects use apostrophes in creating the effect of a non-standard pronunciation.
  • Apostrophes to omit letters in place names are common on British road signs when space does not allow for the full name (e.g. Wolverhampton abbreviated as "W'hampton" and Kidderminster as "K'minster", as shown on this sign).
  • The United States Board on Geographic Names, while discouraging possessive apostrophes in place names, allows apostrophes indicating omission, as in "Lake O' the Woods," or when normally present in a surname, as in "O’Malley Draw".[56]

Use in forming some plurals[edit]

The apostrophe can be used in plural abbreviations
as in the team logo of the Oakland A's.

The apostrophe may be used for clarity with the plurals of single letters as in

"minding your p's and q's"
"A's and S's"[57]

Use of the apostrophe may be recommended only for lowercase letters.[58] On the other hand, some style manuals and critics suggest that apostrophes should never be used for plurals, even for lower case letters.[59] APA style requires that one write: ps, ns, etc.[60]

An apostrophe is used by some writers to form a plural for abbreviations, initials including acronyms, and symbols, especially where adding just s rather than 's may leave meaning ambiguous or presentation inelegant. Some specific cases:

  • For groups of years, most style guides prefer 1960s to 1960's[61] and 90s or '90s to 90's or '90's.[62][63]
  • Several guides discourage using an apostrophe in forming the plural of numbers, for example 1000s of years rather than 1000's of years.[63][64] An alternative is to write out the numbers as words.[65]
  • The apostrophe is often used in plurals of symbols, for example "that page has too many &'s and # 's on it". Some style guides state that the apostrophe is unnecessary since there is no ambiguity but that some editors and teachers prefer this usage.[61] The addition of an s without an apostrophe may make the text difficult to read.[65]

For abbreviations, acronyms, etc., use of s without an apostrophe is now more common than its use with an apostrophe, but for single lowercase letters, pluralization with 's is usual.[66][67][68]

Use in non-English names[edit]

Names that are not strictly native to English sometimes have an apostrophe substituted to represent other characters (see also As a mark of elision, below).

  • Anglicised versions of Irish surnames typically contain an apostrophe after an O (in place of Ó), for example O'Doole.
  • Some Scottish and Irish surnames use an apostrophe after an M, for example M'Gregor. The apostrophe here may be seen as marking a contraction where the prefix Mc or Mac would normally appear. However, it may also arise from confusion of (turned comma or "6-quote"), which was used as a substitute for superscript c when printing with hand-set metal type. Compare: M'Lean, McLean, M‘Lean.[69]

Use in transliteration[edit]

In transliterated foreign words, an apostrophe may be used to separate letters or syllables that otherwise would likely be interpreted incorrectly. For example:

  • in the Arabic word mus'haf, a transliteration of مصحف‎, the syllables are as in mus·haf, not mu·shaf
  • in the Japanese name Shin'ichi, the apostrophe shows that the pronunciation is shi·n·i·chi (hiragana しんいち), where the letters n () and i () are separate morae, rather than shi·ni·chi (しにち).
  • in the Chinese Pinyin romanization, the apostrophe (') (隔音符號, géyīn fúhào, 'syllable-dividing mark') is used before a syllable starting with a vowel (a, o, or e) in a multiple-syllable word when the syllable does not start the word (which is most commonly realized as [ɰ]), unless the syllable immediately follows a hyphen or other dash.[70] This is done to remove ambiguity that could arise, as in Xi'an, which consists of the two syllables xi ("西") an (""), compared to such words as xian (""). (This ambiguity does not occur when tone marks are used: The two tone marks in Xīān unambiguously show that the word consists of two syllables. However, even with tone marks, the city is usually spelled with an apostrophe as Xī'ān.)

Furthermore, an apostrophe may be used to indicate a glottal stop in transliterations. For example:

  • in the Arabic word Qur'an, a common transliteration of (part of) القرآنal-qur'ān, the apostrophe corresponds to the diacritic Maddah over the 'alif, one of the letters in the Arabic alphabet

Rather than ʿ the apostrophe is sometimes used to indicate a voiced pharyngeal fricative as it sounds and looks like the glottal stop to most English speakers. For example:

  • in the Arabic word Ka'aba for الكعبةal-kaʿbah, the apostrophe corresponds to the Arabic letter ʿayn.

Non-standard English use[edit]

If you have a name that ends in "s," or if you will observe home-made signs selling tomatoes or chili-and-beans, you will quickly note what can be done with a possessive apostrophe in reckless hands.

— Algis Budrys, 1965[71]

Failure to observe standard use of the apostrophe is widespread and frequently criticised as incorrect,[72][73] often generating heated debate. The British founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society earned a 2001 Ig Nobel prize for "efforts to protect, promote and defend the differences between plural and possessive".[74] A 2004 report by British examination board OCR stated that "the inaccurate use of the apostrophe is so widespread as to be almost universal".[75] A 2008 survey found that nearly half of the UK adults polled were unable to use the apostrophe correctly.[73]

Superfluous apostrophes ("greengrocers' apostrophes")[edit]

A sign pointing to taxis at Leeds railway station, England, with the extraneous apostrophe crossed out by an unknown copy editor

Apostrophes used in a non-standard manner to form noun plurals are known as greengrocers' apostrophes or grocers' apostrophes, often written as greengrocer's apostrophes[76] or grocer's apostrophes.[77] They are sometimes humorously called greengrocers apostrophe's, rogue apostrophes, or idiot's apostrophes (a literal translation of the German word Deppenapostroph, which criticises the misapplication of apostrophes in Denglisch). The practice, once common and acceptable (see Historical development), comes from the identical sound of the plural and possessive forms of most English nouns. It is often criticised as a form of hypercorrection coming from a widespread ignorance of the proper use of the apostrophe or of punctuation in general. Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, points out that before the 19th century it was standard orthography to use the apostrophe to form a plural of a foreign-sounding word that ended in a vowel (e. g., banana's, folio's, logo's, quarto's, pasta's, ouzo's) to clarify pronunciation. Truss says this usage is no longer considered proper in formal writing.[78]

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's letter to EU President Donald Tusk of 19 October 2019 regarding a Brexit extension contained a well-publicised and ridiculed[79] grocer's apostrophe. He wrote "in this continent [that] our people's (sic) share" [80]

The term is believed to have been coined in the middle of the 20th century by a teacher of languages working in Liverpool, at a time when such mistakes were common in the handwritten signs and advertisements of greengrocers (e. g., Apple's 1/- a pound, Orange's 1/6d a pound). Some have argued that its use in mass communication by employees of well-known companies has led to the less literate assuming it to be standard and adopting the habit themselves.[81]

The same use of apostrophe before noun plural -s forms is sometimes made by non-native speakers of English. For example, in Dutch, the apostrophe is inserted before the s when pluralising most words ending in a vowel or y for example, baby's (English babies) and radio's (English radios). This often produces so-called "Dunglish" errors when carried over into English.[82] Hyperforeignism has been formalised in some pseudo-anglicisms. For example, the French word pin's (from English pin) is used (with the apostrophe in both singular and plural) for collectible lapel pins. Similarly, there is an Andorran football club called FC Rànger's (after such British clubs as Rangers F.C.) and a Japanese dance group called Super Monkey's.


In the UK there is a tendency to drop apostrophes in many commonly used names such as St Annes, St Johns Lane,[83] and so on.

In 2009, a resident in Royal Tunbridge Wells was accused of vandalism by one neighbour after he painted apostrophes on road signs that had spelled the street name as St Johns Close.[84]

UK supermarket chain Tesco omits the mark where standard practice would require it. Signs in Tesco advertise (among other items) "mens magazines", "girls toys", "kids books" and "womens shoes". In his book Troublesome Words, author Bill Bryson lambastes Tesco for this, stating that "the mistake is inexcusable, and those who make it are linguistic Neanderthals."[85]

In the USA, the United States Board on Geographic Names discourages the use of possessive apostrophes in geographic names (see above).[86]

The Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, Australia, excludes possessive apostrophes from place names, along with other punctuation.[87]

Particular cases[edit]

George Bernard Shaw, a proponent of English spelling reform on phonetic principles, argued that the apostrophe was mostly redundant. He did not use it for spelling cant, hes, etc., in many of his writings. He did, however, allow I'm and it's.[88] Hubert Selby Jr. used a slash instead of an apostrophe mark for contractions and did not use an apostrophe at all for possessives. Lewis Carroll made greater use of apostrophes, and frequently used sha'n't, with an apostrophe in place of the elided ll as well as the more usual o.[89][90] These authors' usages have not become widespread.

Other misuses[edit]

The British pop group Hear'Say famously made unconventional use of an apostrophe in its name. Truss comments that "the naming of Hear'Say in 2001 was [...] a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy".[91] Dexys Midnight Runners, on the other hand, omit the apostrophe (though Dexys could possibly be understood as a plural form of Dexy, rather than a possessive form).

The apostrophe in the name of rock band The La's is often thought to be misused, but in fact it marks omission of the letter d. The name comes from the Scouse slang for lads.

The over-use of apostrophes in names in fantasy literature was satirised by Neal Stephenson in Reamde.


Over the years, the use of apostrophes has been criticised. George Bernard Shaw called them "uncouth bacilli", referring to the apostrophe-like shape of many bacteria. The author and language commentator Anu Garg, in a humorous but well-argued discussion, has called for the abolition of the apostrophe, stating "Some day this world would be free of metastatic cancers, narcissistic con men, and the apostrophe."[92] In his book American Speech, linguist Steven Byington stated of the apostrophe that "the language would be none the worse for its abolition". Adrian Room, in his English Journal article "Axing the Apostrophe", argued that apostrophes are unnecessary, and context will resolve any ambiguity.[93] In a letter to the English Journal, Peter Brodie stated that apostrophes are "largely decorative ... [and] rarely clarify meaning".[94] John C. Wells, emeritus professor of phonetics at University College London, says the apostrophe is "a waste of time".[93] The Apostrophe Protection Society, founded by retired journalist John Richards in 2001, was brought to a full stop in 2019, Richards (then aged 96) accepting that "the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”.[95]

Non-English use[edit]

As a mark of elision[edit]

In many languages, especially European languages, the apostrophe is used to indicate the elision of one or more sounds, as in English.