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Warning: Approach Apostrophes with Extreme Caution

14 December, 2007

Apostrophes. You can love them or hate them but you can’t live without them—or can you?

Last year, an Australian found that her new handset had no apostrophe in the text-messaging characters. When she complained, both to the handset manufacturer and to Telstra, the responses were:

What’s an apostrophe? And Why do you want one of those? I’ve never used one.


Apostrophe users fall into 4 broad categories:

Apostrophobes. They are so confused about how to use apostrophes that they simply will not use them unless they are sure they know what they are doing. So instead of writing I went to Michael Brown’s party, they will settle for I went to the party of Michael Brown.

Apostrophe challenged. Unlike the phobes, they have a go at using apostrophes—but often make the wrong choice. As a result, we see they’re for their, you’re for your, and—the most common mistake—it’s for its. The difficulty for them is that spellcheckers don’t pick up these errors. Once people are confused about the difference between it’s and its, they rarely get over it.

Apostroflationistas. Apostroflation is a term used by Professor Pam Peters, author of the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (CAESG). It refers to the growing phenomenon of apostrophes being used in new, incorrect places. Major culprits are greengrocers and other retailers whose shops are adorned with handwritten signs such as Bargain potatoe’s, loave’s half-price, banana’s cheap. Menus are another goldmine of apostroflation, coupled with misspellings: Entre’s, Choclate crossant’s.

The threat of apostroflation has led to fight-back actions. Fans of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 report examples and call on a fictional hero, Apostrophe Man, to fly off and right these wrongs. Great Britain had (or still has) an Apostrophe Protection Society to preserve the correct use of apostrophes. The USA has an informal National Punctuation Day, which I assume includes attention to apostrophes. Another Australian group, called Citizens Resisting Apostrophe Plague, even hands out ‘awards’ for the worst example. Here’s one ‘winner’:



Apostrophe experts. Gentle readers, I imagine you think you’re in this category. But if your use of apostrophes has not changed since Miss Crump taught you punctuation in Year 8, you may be an apostrophe dinosaur. Just as vocabulary changes through the years, so does punctuation, albeit at a much slower pace. Here’s a quiz to test you:


a. Is it Veterans Affairs? Or Veterans’ Affairs?

b. Is it the bees’s knees? Or the bees’ knees?

c. Is it Socrates’ death? Or Socrates’s death?

According to Pam Peters, the first choice in each of the items above shows currently acceptable use in Australia and the USA. Is she right? Are you right? Do you know for sure?

Don’t stay stuck in the punctuation tar pits of your schooldays.To find out what’s currently accepted in your country, buy or at least look at a respected AND up-to-date style guide. Australians have the CAESG and the AGPS Style Manual. Americans can consult the Chicago Manual of Style. Brits have the latest Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the entertaining book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, also provides food for thought.

Two final comments:

Form or content? Recently, when browsing through blogs and forums, I read someone’s view that getting upset about misplaced apostrophes is silly because it’s easy to comprehend what the writer means. A few minutes later, I looked at a blog written by someone whose dream is to become a published novelist. Her blog was peppered with basic punctuation errors, including wrongly used apostrophes, plus a number of misspellings. It’s true that I could still understand what she wrote. But the mistakes created a negative impression and I wondered about her chances, given how competitive it is to get published.

Punctuation Police. Of course the example above is an extreme one. At the other end of the spectrum are the Punctuation Police, people who feel compelled to correct the apostrophes on signs. They always use a red pen, so you find a red X over the misplaced apostrophe in ‘Tomatoe’s half-price’ and a red apostrophe inserted into ‘Its a bargain’.

  • They seem to be on a mission to make the world safe for apostrophes. But what I wonder is:
    Do they always carry a red pen with them, in case they find a mistake?
    And when do they do it? I’ve never seen anyone in the act of correcting a sign. Are they punctuation ninjas, invisible in black, who wield their red pen like their other weapons, obliterating or inserting an apostrophe so lightning quick that you never see them doing it?

If you have peeves about apostrophes or any other punctuation bloopers, please share them.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 January, 2008 4:14 am

    I’m comforted that they represent job security for copyeditors. (laughing)


  2. 16 December, 2007 9:23 am

    I always sigh when I see placards elaborately carved with surnames that were probably intended to be plural, and possibly possessive as well, but ended up as some sort of bizarre mutations. Better to be an apostrophobe.

    Hi Robin, Thanks for this good addition to the apostrophe problem list. I’d forgotten about carved signs for surnames because they’re not all that common where I live. You’re right about the confusion that results from wanting to make a surname plural and also show possession–a real minefield. Do you find it hard to repress your ‘inner’ Apostrophe Ninja when you see these problems? 🙂 Marsha


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