Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alas, Poor Apostrophe!

I feel sorry for the apostrophe. It’s a perfectly fine piece of punctuation, but modern society holds little respect for this nifty little guy. Not only is the apostrophe (’) often omitted (especially in text messages), but—adding insult to injury—he increasingly gets replaced with his cousin, the beginning single quote mark (‘)! Unfortunately, even many budding authors don’t realize the difference.

Please allow me to defend my little friend, the apostrophe. Then, if you still choose to ignore or to abuse him, at least you’ll be doing it on purpose and not by accident.

So, what is the apostrophe’s purpose for existence? Half of the time, he shows the reader that something has been left out of a word for brevity’s sake. For instance, with the aid of our little hero, we can change slightly stilted word combinations into sleek, streamlined, single words.

Exhibit A:
     It is = It’s
     Could not = Couldn’t

Cool, huh? The apostrophe can also indicate possession:

Exhibit B:
     The home of Professor Tolkien = Professor Tolkien’s home
     The ice cream cone of Susie = Susie’s ice cream cone

Also handy: When an apostrophe shows that letters are omitted at the beginnings of words, it makes them more folksy or simply easier to say:

Exhibit C:
     Goodbye! = ’Bye!
     Sic them, Fido! = Sic ’em, Fido!

And this, my friends, is where the apostrophe has most often received abuse. Why? Because when personal computers became popular in the 1980s, word-processing programs (such as MS Word or WordPerfect) couldn’t tell for sure when an author wanted a ’ or a ‘. The programmers decided that, if a human hits that particular key immediately after a letter (see Exhibit A above), then the punctuation should curve to the left since it must be either an apostrophe or a closing single quote mark. So far, so good. However, the programmers also assumed that hitting that key after a space must mean the writer is about to begin a quote within a quote. (E.g., “John sends a warm, Hello’ to all of you.”) Bad assumption! That’s why word processors replace perfectly good apostrophes with an opening single quote mark and incorrectly produce such as expressions as…

     Well, ‘til we meet again! (Abbreviating until should result in ’til.)
     Go get ‘em! (Abbreviating them should result in ’em!)
For a long while, I spotted such gaffes mainly in self-published works by people who didnt use the services of an editor. Now, though, this cancerous error is spreading into professionally produced advertisements. The poor little apostrophe practically shudders. Is it doomed to follow dinosaurs and hoop skirts into the dust bin of history?

Dear friends, rally to the cause! If you need a little piece of punctuation to show you’re leaving something off the beginning of a word, then please always choose the apostrophe, never the opening single quote mark!

P.S.: If you’ve gotten this far and still can’t understand what I’m ranting about, then merely select a nice, sans serif font such as Arial or Calibri instead of Times Roman. Since the sans-serif fonts don’t curve their quotes and apostrophes, they’ll look correct every time!


  1. What a fun piece of puncuational advice!

  2. What about some plural forms of our ' friend?

  3. Darren, if you mean explanations of the difference between singular and plural possessives... Wow, that is a whole new discussion. But you're right in that those, too, are commonly mixed up, sometimes with comical meanings as the result!

  4. Does anyone know an easy way to make sure the beginning apostrophe comes out as an apostrophe rather than a beginning quote mark? I always end up typing letters before it and then deleting them, because that way the "smart" operation doesn't assume it is is quote mark. But if I turn off the "smart" function, will it mess things up when I really want a single beginning quote mark? HELP!

  5. I'd like to know that too Kathryn and I hope someone addresses it. In the meantime I'll ponder such fun things as dinosaurs IN hoop skirts.

  6. Aha! As a former English teacher, I have long rallied to the defense of the apostrophe, but your exposure of the word processor's use of an opening single quote mark rather the apostrophe is something I've never noticed. In fact, as I write this, I notice that the processor inserts a mark that makes the two indistinguishable. Coward.