April 9, 2020

The Versatile Apostrophe (Part 1)

Judith P. Nembhard

Apostrophe: noun. A punctuation mark that shows possession or marks the omission of one or more letters (contraction); a figure of speech

I have heard academics—mainly theology scholars strutting their Greek—complain about the limitations of English when they want to emphasize the special meaning of a word so that their audience will understand better what they are trying to say. They bemoan the fact that English has only one word for love, whereas the Greek has three or four. I take offence at any attempt to detract from the power of the English language. With the word apostrophe, I am pleased to say that English has two totally different meanings for the one word. I hope this is good enough to mollify those scholars.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word apostrophe comes from the Greek, and means “a turning away.” An apostrophe, then, refers to letters that have been turned away or left out in order to shorten a word or to make it more easily pronounceable. So it indicates omissions and contractions. It is an essential punctuation mark that writers should be able to use skillfully. In this age of self-publishing, it behooves us writers to be strong on our proofreading skills, which include a knowledge of how to use the apostrophe accurately. I recently listened to a book reviewer on NPR heap praise on a book that he considered powerful in its impact. Its one drawback, he said, was the writer’s mechanical errors. The reviewer mentioned something as simple as making one of the characters in the book say “I have” when “I’ve” would have been more effective in the context. The apostrophe, then, can be seen as useful for improving style.

The apostrophe as a mark of punctuation has a variety of uses. In her humorous book on punctuation, Eats Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss remarks, “There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service [in Britain] workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them anymore.” She asks, “How dare anyone make this decision on behalf of the apostrophe?” Truss says that a person who has always wanted to know about where to place the apostrophe will never learn “because it’s so extremely easy to find out.” And it is easy to find out from any English handbook so that a lesson in usage is not needed here. A few reminders, however, are worth noting. The apostrophe should not be used to make plurals of regular English nouns. For example: “The two writers (not writer’s) had their novels reviewed favorably.” Also, always place the apostrophe after the plural of a word when it already has an “s” at the end. For example: “Writers’ works must not be tampered with.”

Concerning making the plural of a year, do we write the “1970’s” or the “1970s”? Either one is correct. Words such as who’s and it’s are tricky for some people. Perhaps, like me, you get out your red pen when you read sentences such as “Mr. Pemberton didn’t know who’s play he was reviewing.” The sentence confuses “whose,” the relative pronoun, with the contraction for “who is.” With the apostrophe, it’s always means “it is”; without the apostrophe, “its” is a pronoun. If two characters own the same thing, the apostrophe goes to the second person mentioned; for, example, “Rogers and Hart’s prize-winning play was performed on Broadway.” If the item is owned separately, it is written “Roger’s and Hart’s prize-winning plays were performed on Broadway. “  . . . Part 2 on April 23.

Judith Nembhard was born in Jamaica and grew up amid the island’s lush scenery, which influenced her writing. Her early fascination with language led her to complete three degrees in English, including a doctorate from the University of Maryland College Park. Her articles have appeared in professional journals, religious and secular magazines, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. She writes Christian fiction. She has earned writing awards in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, Deep River Books Contest, and Southern Writers Magazine Short Story Contest. She is featured in the Southern Writers Magazine Galaxy of Stars.

Her book, Dark Days On The Fairest Island was a finalist in the Southern Christian Writers Conference (SCWC) Notable Book Award in its category.

Judith is a woman of faith and has shared her spiritual vision with audiences at commencement and Women’s Day celebrations and women’s retreats. She has given workshops on writing and improving public speaking skills.

Judith has two adult sons. She has teaching and writing as her greatest loves and reading as her most passionate hobby. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


  1. Judith thank you for delving into the apostrophe for us. It always helps when we learn more about the mechanics of writing. Looking forward to your Part 2 April 23.

    1. Susan,
      Isn't it interesting that a little half-quotation mark can be so versatile---and so misused. I hope I was able to shine a light on it. Thanks for your good words.

  2. Thanks for this, Judith. You made it interesting. I'm looking forward to part 2.

    1. Betty,
      We writers have to cover all the bases, editing being one of the important ones. Perhaps we should all join Lynn Truss in her "sticklers" movement and get it right every time.
      Thank you for your positive comment.