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Avoiding catapostrophes: treating the flying comma with respect

In recent years, the apostrophe has found itself at a crossroads. It has an appreciation society set up in its name, and is a key issue in the book ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss. Such movements have led those on the other side of the debate to  associate the apostrophe with ‘grammar bullying’ and holding back progressive spelling changes. It’s all a tad harsh on the punctuation mark itself, which didn’t ask for any of this and simply wants to carry out its role of indicating possessives and omitted letters with the minimum of fuss.

I once had a job where I was writing a letter and, when I had finished it, I was told to take out all of the apostrophes on the basis that “if you use them, you have to get them all right”. My argument that I knew how to use apostrophes and that removing them would actually make much of what I had written grammatically incorrect didn’t seem to come into the equation. While I appreciate that not everyone can be a grammatical genius, I don’t think that apostrophe use is one of the tougher aspects of the English language, and I find it slightly disconcerting that even people in positions of power can so often think that ignoring the flying comma is a suitable way to mask their own reluctance to just learn how to use it.

Here are three of the biggest tips on using apostrophes.

1. Not for plurals!

Some people seem adamant that certain nouns need an accompanying apostrophe when pluralised. This misunderstanding seems to be particularly rife if the word ends with a vowel, (as in photo’s, banana’s and, ironically, apostrophe’s).

Quite simply, this is not necessary. The following are all fine:

– I have uploaded some photos onto Facebook
– I was born in the 1980s
– MPs are paid too much

The one occasion in which using an apostrophe to pluralise could be argued to be necessary is for single lower-case letters, for example ‘my name has three a’s and two i’s in it”, because ‘as’ and ‘is’ are words in their own right.

2. Cutting it short

The crucial thing to remember with words like can’t, won’t, haven’t, you’ve etc. is that you are shortening words and leaving out letters, so an apostrophe is needed to show the omission. It becomes especially important for words like we’re and I’ll, since they spell words of their own if the apostrophe goes walkabouts.

3. Pointing out possession

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, on his way back from the South Pole in 1911, is believed to have said:

“I have no more dinner: I’m going to eat the dogs’”

That apostrophe at the end of the sentence was the difference between the dogs having to do without food, and them ending up inside Amundsen’s stomach. That example really highlights the importance of apostrophes in differentiating between possessives and plural nouns.

It may well be that the day will come when apostrophes are seen as more trouble that they’re worth. Until then, however, I would argue that correct use of them leads to clearer and more appealing writing.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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