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Apostrophe

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The apostrophe is used in many languages. Its chief purpose is to indicate a missing letter. So, for example, in French, "l'armoire" means "the wardrobe", and is composed of "armoire" preceded by "la", which drops the "a" before another vowel: the apostrophe is there to acknowledge this.

Several languages use the apostrophe as a diacritic.

Use in English

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Use in English
Alphabetical word list
Retroalphabetical list  
Common misspellings  

  • The accents show stress and pronunciation (see English spellings): A: sát, mâde, pàrk, cāst (cást/càst), åll, ãir; E: ére, êar, vèin, fërn; I: sít, mîne, skì, bïrd; O: sóng, môde, lòve, wörd, ŏr; OO: moôn, foòt; U: sún, mûse, fùll, pürr; W: neŵ, ẁant; Y: gým, mŷ, keỳ, mÿrrh.

In English the apostrophe, though it looks like a levitating comma, behaves like a letter, its inclusion compulsory, though it does not appear in crossword puzzles and is conveniently expendable when taking notes. It has three pronunciations, í, schwa, and a glottal stop, but, also like many letters, it is frequently silent—and it is the silent apostrophe that causes problems, as, for example, when ít's replaces íts in a phrase like wágging íts tâil. Throughout the world there exist notices in which apostrophes have been inserted into ordinary plurals, as for example in LOT'S OF BARGAIN'S (lóts of bàrgains); they have been called "greengrocers' apostrophes".[1] Conversely, apostrophes are often omitted, especially among capitals and in titles, presumably for aesthetic reasons: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE (Chámpions' Lêague - or perhaps Chámpions is here an adjective), TEACHERS COLLEGE (Têacher[']s Cóllege, showing the same ambiguity), BITCHES BREW (Bítches' Breŵ: singular would be Bítch’s Breŵ; this is not a statement that bitches brew). There have been periodic calls for the apostrophes abolition; and in that example, omitting it reads easily enough, though wéll and wê'll, for example, would join the ranks of homographs.

Pronunciation

The apostrophe is often pronounced like í in ís (though all of the following are schwa in Australasian English) in possessive nouns after -s, -x, -z, -ce, -se, -ch, and -sh: Jônes's càr, Méndez's hòuse, Báz's machìne, St Jâmes's Pàrk (all -zíz), Rêese's dóg, Bíx's bánquet, the fóx's tâil, Grêece's nèighbours (all -síz), wítch's breŵ (-chíz), Bùsh's pólicies (-shíz).

And also in the contraction of ís after -s, -x, -z, -ce, -se, -ch, -sh: the fóx's íll sounds like the fóx ís íll - though the former is almost as likely to have the schwa sound.

Some writers prefer to omit the possessive s: Jônes' càr &c., but two s’s are heard (if not, that would be Jôan’s càr).

In róck’n’rôll, R'n'B, B'n'B, and similar one-word contractions with an abbreviated 'and', the first apostrophe is schwa and the second silent.

And the schwa sound begins -n’t (the contraction of nót) to form a set of single-word verb contractions: coùldn't, dídn't, hádn't, ŏughtn't, shoùldn't, mústn't, hásn't - though the apostrophe, signalling the omitted ó of nót, must come after the n.

But where -n't follows a vowel sound (or a vowel-drenched r in AmE), there is no new syllable: cān't, shān't, àren't, wëren't, dãren't.

It is also silent when it substitutes for the í in ís, and in the possessives, provided that the preceding sound is not a sibilant (as in -s, -x, -z, -ce, or -se, where the e is silent). Possessive: Pêter's boòk. Meaning ís: Pêter's íll. The dóg’s ángry. The gòvernment’s crâzy.

There are more silent apostrophes in the very common contractions hê's, Î'm, wê're, thèy'd, yoû've, shê'll, ít's etc.

And it’s here, with ít’s, that we come to the most common apostrophe mistake of all, as found in "It wagged it's tail". The correct version is apostropheless like the other possessives mŷ, òur, yŏur, hís (*hízz) and hër: The dóg wágged íts tâil. It’s a perfectly logical mistake, as noun possessives do have the apostrophe: Pêter shoòk Jâne’s hánd, and so does the pronoun òne’s: Ít géts ón òne's (*wúnz) nërves. Computer spellcheckers cannot as yet detect and correct this error; but it remains that ít's is only allowed for the contraction of ít ís.

The full declension of a noun ending in –y

singular plural
normal pàrty pàrties
possessive pàrty's pàrties'

pàrties = pàrty's = pàrties'—they are identically pronounced.


In the gïrls’ boòks the possessive plural apostrophe is silent and final, after the plural s of gïrls.

Similarly: thê Émirates' låws, hër bâbies' náppies, the hŏrses' mânes.

In the chíldren's boòks, chíldren is already plural, so its possessive form has an 's as if it were singular.

Possessives used as expressions of time: a feŵ dâys' time, fîve hòurs' slêep, a wêek's drîve.

whose possessive = who's contraction: these are both *hoôz and so are commonly confused:

Whose boòk ís ít? I’m trŷing to fînd òut who's tâken ít (who hás).

Who’s còming? (Who ís?)

The përson whose mistâke ít ís ís nót ûsually the përson who’s môst bóthered by ít. The òne whose idêas are bést and who´s bést at presénting them ísn’t necessãrily the òne who's gót the môst to gâin.

The apostrophe occurs initially in the archaic 'tís and 'tẁas (for ít ís and ít ẁas) and to indicate dropped h: 'Ê tôld mê 'ê'd bŏught an 'ŏrse for Hê tôld mê hê'd bŏught a hŏrse.

In the plural of letters of the alphabet, initials and dates it used to be customary to put an apostrophe before the s: CD's (*sêedêez), the 1980's, but this has become less common: CDs, 1980s.

Ô and a silent apostrophe begin many Irish surnames: O'Súllivan, O’Cónnor, O’Dónnell, O’Lêary, O’Toôle, O’Nêill, O’Reîlly, O’Gŏrman. There is no space after the apostrophe.[2] This contrasts with thrêe o'clóck, where the first o is a schwa.

The apostrophe can also occur in words from Arabic and Hebrew, between vowels, where it is (in English more in theory than in practice) a glottal stop, such as Bà’ath party (usually = bàth water), in the name of the newspaper Ha’arétz, and in Qur’àn, which some prefer to the traditional Koràn. It adds another option to the already too many spellings of *ál-Qŷda (ál-Qaîda, Ál-Qaîda, ál-Qàêda, Ál-Qàêda; ál-Qà'êda, etc...) Rarely does one hear an anglophone sound the glottal stop that is present here in the Arabic (*ál-Qà-êda).

Similarly, Hallowêen is usually nowadays left without an apostrophe between the e's (it signalled an omitted v, cf. êvening).

Apostrophes are useful for shortening words in captions, as with gòv't for gòvernment.

Use as a diacritic

In Breton

In Breton, the apostrophe serves as a diacritic by distinguishing the graphemes c’h (pronounced IPA [x]) and ch (pronounced [ʃ]).

As an accent in Italian

In Italian, a final apostrophe is sometimes used instead of a final upper-case accent. This is a nonstandard use, typically found in signs and notices:

POSSIBILITÀ (“possibility”) rendered as POSSIBILITA’
È FACILE (“it's easy”) as E’ FACILE
MONDOVÌ (Piedmontese town) signposted as MONDOVI’

Appearance of apostrophe and inverted commas

The apostrophe, in fonts where it is not vertical, always bends like a reversed 'c', or '9'. Its opposite, the mark which bends in the same direction as a 'c', or '6', can only be used as an opening inverted comma, while the closing inverted comma looks exactly like an apostrophe; there can be no confusion, however, because the inverted comma, being a true punctuation mark, can never be followed immediately by a letter. Inverted commas (which have the same tendency to be used superfluously, around notices) can be single ('…') or double ("…") and are used to open (if not straight, then like 6 or 66) or close (9 or 99) direct speech: "Examinâtions," obsërved Óscar, "are quéstions àsked bŷ the foôlish whích the wîse cánnot ànswer."

References

  1. Lynne Truss: Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Profile Books, ISBN 1 86197 612 7
  2. These spellings are English; Irish uses Ó, substitutes a space for the apostrophe and spells many of the names wildly differently.