The Philosophy behind the Apostrophe

Posted on Jan 18, 2024

Whether it’s to cut down on tedious pronunciation or simply to say which thing belongs to whom, the irreplaceable apostrophe stands—or rather hangs—as one of the most essential and important punctuation marks in the English language.

If you’ve ever been in a hurry, you’ll know that the less time it takes to say what you have to say, the better. The English language is chock-full of shortcuts that make this possible. For instance, you can say “won’t” instead of “will not,” “he’s” instead of “he is,” and “y’all’d’ve’f’I’d’ve” instead of “you all would have if I would have.” Time is money, and apostrophes help you make every cent count.

Not to be confused with the literary device used to address absent persons or personified concepts (“O Death! O Providence!”), the apostrophe, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “a mark used to indicate the omission of letters or figures, the possessive case, or the plural of letters or figures.”

This is most commonly used in contractions, as seen in the examples earlier, which can be as short as “I’d” (“I would”) or as long as vernacular standards dictate. Some contractions even require apostrophes at the beginning of the word, such as “’twas” in place of “it was” or “’tis” in place of “it is” although those particular contractions are mostly useful if you’re reciting Christmas carols or if you lived in the time of Shakespeare.

In fact, the use of the apostrophe in contractions was first practiced by the French sometime in the 1500s before English speakers followed suit. Ammon Shea, author of Bad English, shares that the usage was “not very common at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and it took a while to catch on . . . There was confusion and consternation because people didn’t really know what the apostrophe was doing in the possessive, the genitive case.” She adds, “Some people thought it was a mark of elision, so ‘the king’s book’ was a shortening of ‘the king his book.’ Some people think that what the apostrophe is doing is going back to our Old English roots.”

The apostrophe is additionally a must-use mark when it comes to the possessive cases of words, and it’s important to pay attention to the mark’s placement. As such, the typical rule for generic terms is to place the apostrophe before s.

  My sister’s guitars are her most valued possessions.

Placement is everything. For instance, the above sentence means differently if you move that mark just after s, indicating that you may come from a big family or, rather, that all your female siblings just happen to be musically inclined.

  My sisters’ guitars are their most valued possessions.

For that matter, possessive phrases such as “my sister’s guitar’s strings,” “my sister’s guitars’ strings,” “my sisters’ guitars’ strings,” and so on mean completely different things. Nevertheless, a few exceptions for this generic punctuation rule can be found, such as with the expressions “for goodness’ sake” or “for righteousness’ sake.”

In the case of, well, the possessive case for proper nouns that end with s, such as surnames, style guides differ slightly in apostrophe usage; nowadays, the common practice is to add another s after the apostrophe for singular terms, though the same rule of adding an apostrophe at the end of a plural term still applies.

  Mrs. Angus’s dog is a cutie.

  The Anguses’ garden is very well-kept.

However, if we were to discuss, say, ancient Greek and Roman culture, we would be instructed to leave no s after the apostrophe for names ending in an eez sound.

  We learned about Achilles’ battles in class.

  Archimedes’ math theories always give me a headache.

Sometimes the apostrophe is even used to pluralize nonpossessive terms. For example, you probably remember your elementary schoolteacher reminding you to “cross your t’s and dot your i’s.”

In essence, the apostrophe is not only a useful tool for “cutting to the chase” in grammar but also a necessity in pinpointing possessive terms. Ultimately, apostrophes should be left hanging in appropriate places in appropriate English words but shouldn’t leaving you “hanging” for clarity!

Our new Punctuation Series brings you easy-to-understand rules and fun trivia about your favorite punctuation marks! For more entries, visit the 1-Hour Proofreading blog!

And if punctuation rules in general still escape you, not to worry! You can avail of our copyediting and proofreading services to make your essay, article, story, and any other written piece the best it can be—all before your deadline! Visit our website at for more information.


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