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How to use the Apostrophe

How to use the Apostrophe

Have you apostrophe anxiety? Does it matter? Well, here are some thoughts on using the apostrophe (not just in Scotland!) that I wrote a little while ago. Read on – as there is an absolutely foolproof rule below that will mean you’ll never have to worry about that pesky piece of punctuation again….oh, except that it assumes you can spell plurals properly. Och, that’ll be easy for a literary type like you. Here goes. First of all….

Does the apostrophe matter?

Loganair – Scotlands airline’ was painted on the silver flank of the plane that was going to take me to the Hebridean island of Islay. Though that was some time ago, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Hmm. No apostrophe.’

Then I got to thinking that maybe whoever authorised the slogan also wrote the engine service manuals as well. Missing an apostrophe was a bit sloppy, after all. Maybe the servicing was sloppy too. I’m a jumpy traveller at the best of times……

Now, it could also be that at least half of you reading the first few words there didn’t even notice there was no apostrophe. Maybe it’s a generation thing. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

But also maybe that apostrophe in the right place could win you that piece of business you pitched for in print. Or that promotion or job application – heck, I don’t know half the stuff that goes on out there. Irrationally or not, I do know I ‘mark down’ bad punctuation, especially if someone is trying to sell me something in print, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I’m not trying to keep alive this punctuation convention here, but on the other hand…..hmm.

wrong use of the apostrophe

Wrong apostrophe – it’s just a plural, silly.

(Right) This Perth country store is just the place for cheap dog food (by the way!) but what is that apostrophe doing in an everyday plural noun? I’ll take my business elsewhere…..!!

So, leaving aside the question of whether or not the apostrophe is on its way to becoming the dodo of the punctuation world, here’s my foolproof method of how to get it right, every time. And it couldn’t be easier.

The apostrophe rule

Ready? OK, imagine the apostrophe as a wee flag that you stick in as soon as you know who or what is doing the possessing and that the word is complete and correctly spelt. The airline of Scotland? Scotland is doing the possessing, so it’s Scotland, then the apostrophe before the s – Scotland’s airline. The poetry of Robert Burns? Singular words that already end in ‘s’ cause confusion. It’s Burns doing the possessing, so flag it up with an apostrophe, and as the word already ends in an s, you get a choice if you want another s. (Burns’s poetry. Does it sound right to you? Sometimes you see it like this. Otherwise it’s Burns’ poetry. )

Scotland’s airline and Burns’ poetry (usually). Easy-peasy. There was an architect called William Burn who in 1829-33 did a controversial makeover of the High Kirk of St Giles on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. So the makeover of William Burn is Burn’s makeover – apostrophe before the s signalling the name is complete as ‘Burn’. Get it? As soon as you identify who did the possessing, stick in that little flag. If you don’t like the flag, then see it as an arrow pointing left to the person(s) or thing(s) doing the possessing.

Aaargh!  Missing apostrophe. Dang these illiterate council people

Aaargh! Missing apostrophe. Dang these illiterate council people.

(Right) Go on, whose (lovely and recommended) walk is it by the River Earn in Crieff? Mary. So stick in the apostrophe and make it Mary’s. I’ve a good mind to let the dogs off the leads just to spite them. That’ll teach the ‘cooncil’ to make punctuation errors.

So far, the possessing has been done by singular people, like Mary above, or things. With plurals, same rule applies: as soon you can see who did the possessing – stick on that little flag. The kilts of the boys. Several boys, eh? So, there goes the flag – boys’ kilts. Here’s the important bit: you have to be able to spell the plural correctly. More than one lady is ladies. So the room belonging to these ladies is the ladies’ room. (I mean, it wouldn’t be ladys’ room now would it? Because that’s not how you spell the plural of lady. Savvy?)

It’s simple and foolproof. And don’t let these plurals that don’t end in ‘s’ fool you either. They’re ancient words from Anglo-Saxon, like children and oxen, and deserve respect. In Scots we’ve got even more – we have een for eyes and sheen for shoes, though you’d have to come with me to the places where you can still hear authentic Scots words…… Sorry, I wandered off the topic there.

Anyway, the shoes of the children? Well, it’s the children who do the possessing, so it’s the children’s shoes. Hats of the men? Wool of the sheep? Go on – it’s so easy so long as you can see what makes up a plural – in this case, men and sheep. Think about it, you don’t get mens and sheeps as plurals, do you? Stick in that flag for men’s hats and sheep’s wool.

Street entertainer on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, with the High Kirk of St Giles on the right. He's asking them how many apostrophes he can juggle with at once. (I think I just won the award for the entire site’s most tenuous picture caption.)

Street entertainer on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, with the High Kirk of St Giles on the right. He’s asking them how many apostrophes he can juggle with at once. (I think I just won the award for the entire site’s most tenuous picture caption.)

Still with me? Aside from the possessive case, there are other uses for that little punctuation mark, usually involving a sign that there are missing letters. For example, let’s keep the its or it’s confusion for another day. And as for Burns’ (sic) poem Tam o’ Shanter: well, personally, I always spell it Tam o Shanter on the grounds that the o is a Scots word meaning ‘of’ , rather than the English word ‘of’ with a letter missing. My, oh my, I’m such a terrible rebel. A pernickety, carnaptious thing, the apostrophe…..in Scots or English.

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