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Your apostrophe questions answered

apostrophes By Mary Morel | January 2017


Definition: an insect that lands at random on the printed page, depositing an apostrophe wherever it lands. Discovered in 2002 by British journalist Ian Mayes

Apostrophes in expressions of time

Question: Do you need an apostrophe in ’20 years’ experience’?

Answer: Grammar experts don’t agree about apostrophes in time.

The Australian government Style manual says:

‘It was previously conventional to use an apostrophe in expressions of time involving a plural reference, such as:

six weeks’ time       three months’ wages

The apostrophe is now often left out… the sense of these phrases tends to be more descriptive than possessive.

When the time reference is in the singular, however, the apostrophe should be retained to help mark the noun as singular:

a day’s journey       the year’s cycle’

Apostrophes with single letters

Question: A government website talked about the ‘Four P’s of Marketing’. As this is a plural, no apostrophe should be used. Is that right?

Answer: You’re right. There is no need for an apostrophe in ‘Four Ps’ because it is just a plural and the meaning is clear.
We occasionally use an apostrophe with single letters if they could cause confusion. For example:

  • A’s were the highest mark. (cf. As were the highest mark)
  • Mind your p’s and q’s.
  • Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Implied possession

Question: Is an apostrophe used in the following sentence because ‘attitudes’ is implied after ‘population’s’?

One group’s attitudes may not reflect the larger population’s.

Answer: Yes, ‘attitudes’ is implied in that sentence.

You can often re-word such sentences to avoid this awkward apostrophe usage. For example:

One group’s attitudes may not reflect those of the larger population.

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Apostrophes in place and street names

Question: Apostrophes are no longer used in geographical names in Australia, but what if a road is called ‘Tom’s Farm Road’ and Tom owns the farm?

Answer: You’re right, apostrophes are not used in geographical names in Australia, but I guess if Tom owned the road as well as the farm, he could use an apostrophe. If it was a public road, he would have to write ‘Toms Farm Road’.

This decision to abolish apostrophes in geographical names was made by the Geographical Names Board in 1966.

The rationale is:

  • The people who geographical places are named after don’t own them
  • Names are easier to write without apostrophes
  • Databases are more consistent without apostrophes

Not everyone likes this decision. Here’s an article about Badgerys Creek.

I’ve read that this practice is similar in the US, but in Britain a name can appear with or without an apostrophe in different parts of the country. If you know more, email mary@onlinewritingtraining.com.au

Joint ownership and position of apostrophes

Question: What if you need a parenthetical explanation associated with joint ownership? For example:

Paul’s and Rainford (the butler’s) opinion was that…
Paul’s and Rainford’s (the butler) opinion was that…

Answer: You’ve raised two issues here.

The first issue is whether you need two apostrophes (Paul’s and Rainford’s) or just an apostrophe after the last person’s name (Paul and Rainford’s) if they both share the same opinion.

Not all experts agree, but I think you only need one apostrophe for joint ownership, i.e. if they share the same opinion. You need two apostrophes if they don’t share the same opinion.

Paul’s and Rainford’s different opinions…

The other issue is whether you put the apostrophe after the name or the parenthetical description. The apostrophe should go after the person’s name, so for joint ownership the sentence could be rewritten in a few different ways:

Paul and the butler Rainford’s opinion…
Rainford (the butler) and Paul’s opinion…
Rainford, the butler, and Paul’s opinion…

Apostrophes with ‘s’ names

Question: Should you say Frances’ book or Frances’s book?

Answer: This has become a style choice because the experts don’t agree!

I don’t think it matters as long as you are consistent.

The Australian Government style manual says:

‘For personal names ending in s, the situation is problematic because of the differing ‘rules’ that are variously invoked. One such rule involves the sound of the word: if the possessive inflection is pronounced as a separate syllable, it takes an apostrophe s; if not, the apostrophe alone should be added. The problem is that different people pronounce such possessives differently. Should it therefore be Burns’ or Burns’s? A competing rule has it that names consisting of one syllable always take an apostrophe s (Burns’s), whereas those of more than one syllable take only the apostrophe (Dickens’). Cutting across these practices is the notion that certain time-honoured names ending in s (particularly from biblical and classical sources) take only the apostrophe, whatever their length or pronunciation (Jesus’, Herodotus’).

‘Given this confused situation, the most straightforward course of action is to add apostrophe s to any name ending in s, however long or short it is and however it is pronounced. Thus:

‘Burns’s poems                        Dickens’s novels                    Herodotus’s birthplace.’

On the other hand, The  Associated Press (Guide to Punctuation) says:

‘Just add the apostrophe: Achilles’ heel, Socrates’ question, Jesus’ parables, Hercules’ labours, Oedipus’ blindness, Dickens’ characters, Kansas’ flatlands, Moses’ wanderings, Tennessee Williams’ plays, Xerxes’ armies, Yeats’ poems, Keats’ odes.’

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