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Apostrophe s

§ Blogging · Typography

Why is the humble apostrophe so regularly misused and why are hairdressers so often the culprits?

Ladie’s perm’s at half price

(As the Guardian readers’ editor points out, journalists who should know better also get it wrong.)

Apostrophes have two simple uses: contractions and possessives. Not plurals; the confusion always seems to centre around an ’s’.

Contractions

The apostrophe is used to replace missing letters, e.g.

that is short enough — that’s short enough

it is a crew cut — it’s a crew cut

There are no exceptions.

Possessives

The apostrophe works together with an ’s’ to indicate ownership, e.g.

the mirror’s reflection

women’s stylists

St. James’s Street

And for possessive plurals ending in ’s’, the additional ’s’ is not used, e.g.

ladies’ perms half price

barbers’ wives

There is one exception: the possessive ‘it’ is not punctuated, e.g.

its floor is filthy

There is the odd esoteric exception to the exception: stuff belonging to Jesus is usually said to be Jesus’.

Typographical embellishments

Typographers, in their quest to aid the reader, use the apostrophe in situations where strict grammar would say otherwise, e.g.

do’s and don’ts

As stated earlier apostrophes are not normally used to make plurals, but writing the plural of ‘do’ as ‘dos’ would only serve to confuse the pronunciation. Similarly apostrophes are often used to pluralize (is that a word?) acronyms, e.g.

secondhand CD’s and vinyl

Personally, I prefer ‘CDs’ but it depends on whether that is clear to the reader within the typesetting design.

Why the fuss?

Because ‘barber’s wives’ means something different to ‘barbers’ wives’ (the former implies that a single barber has many wives). Don’t leave it to your readers to work out what you meant; they’re busy enough as it is.

Finally: use real apostrophes

This is not an apostrophe: '. It is a check mark and is generally used as a shorthand unit of measure, meaning ‘feet’ or ‘minutes’.

This is an apostrophe: . It is best created in HTML by using the hexadecimal entity ’. See A List Apart for more typographical correctness.