What’s an apostrophe for?

by Joanna on April 22, 2007

Apostrophe2The importance we attach to grammar rules varies according to the context and circumstances of our writing.  I guess most people don’t bother too much with apostrophes when they’re sending an SMS or text message (I know I don’t, I’m of an age that it takes me an eternity just to type the words).

I’m pretty sure I don’t bother with apostrophes when I’m using a search engine either - although I discovered by chance that it does make a difference to the result.  Google presented me with one set of findings for ‘what’s a metaphor?’ and another for ‘whats a metaphor?’.  The second version - without the apostrophe - was actually more useful to me, even though I was being prompted by Google to correct my grammar: ‘do you mean “what’s”?’.  (Any SEO experts out there who know what the search engines make of punctuation?)

There’s no doubt though that the correct use of the apostrophe does matter when your writing is going to be read by a wider audience - the general public, people in your organisation, your customers or clients.   As Seth Godin reminds us in a great post alongside this photo of a hotel sign that’s lost its apostrophe:

You get no points for using one right, and lose big points when you market any idea while using them wrong.

Whether you like it or not other people will make judgements about you, your brand, your organisation based on the language you use - including the simple apostrophe.  You might be forgiven for thinking, like Seth, that the primary function of the apostrophe is to expose apostrophe ignorance.

No matter.  If they’re making the judgement, why not do something about it?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rich 04.24.07 at 10:04 pm

The first thing I thought of when I saw this was, “What did the Men’s sign say?” Is this a plural issue, the signmaker not realizing that “Women” was already plural, or is it a possessive problem?

Joanna Young 04.25.07 at 11:23 am

Hi Rich - afraid I don’t know about the men’s sign as it was Seth that took the original photo. In any event “men” would be in the same boat as “women” as a plural word that doesn’t end in s.

I can’t really imagine the signwriter thought the word for “more than one female” was “womens” so yes in some way it’s a possessive problem. They were thinking about the women’s toilet but forgot the apostrophe. Of course they could have saved themselves some bother by avoiding the possessive altogether though which I think is what happens on most signs: “Women”. “Men”. Nice and easy.

There is a different question as to how much this really matters - yes it looks bad on the writer, and it is a good reminder that apostrophes matter - but at the end of the day does it still work as a clear and effective sign?


Mitchell Hollins 06.06.07 at 5:05 am

what is the difference between {Authors’} and {Author’s}?

Joanna Young 06.06.07 at 10:58 am

Hi Mitchell, thanks for this question. I know it’s one that troubles a lot of people.

The difference is in the number of authors that we are talking about. If there is only one you’d use “author’s”. “The author’s books.”

If you are talking about more than one author we have to use the plural, adding an “s”. “There are two authors in the room.” The apostrophe comes in to play if something belongs to them. This time though you add it after the final “s”. “Those are the authors’ books.”

The shift from “author’s books” to “authors’ books” tells us that there’s more than one author in the second example.

You only use this form when the word adds an “s” in the plural. If it doesn’t (like women in the original example) you form the possessive with apostrophe then “s”, so “women’s toilet”.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you’ve any more questions.


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