Apostrophe Atrophy apostrophe

It can make a grown man cower in his Calvin Kleins. It can make a grown woman shiver in her Manolo Blahniks. Yet, it’s no bigger than a pinhead.

What am I talking about? The apostrophe. You can’t get away from them (see?).

What Are Apostrophes For?

Business Writing is one of the most enjoyable topics to teach. I once taught a group of twelve colleagues. I had prepared an exercise that was entirely full of mistakes; not one apostrophe was either needed or in the right place. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate to the workshop delegates that even those who should know better can get it wrong. And, the second part of the exercise was to go on to correct them. I’d expected the first part to take much less time than it did.

I was honestly astounded to realise that with one exception everyone in the class did not realise that every example was wrong. Further, once they were informed of this, they could not tell me how to correct them with any degree of certainty.

I’ve taught probably thousands of employees, team leaders, managers, MDs, CEOs and directors. This was the only time I felt like packing up and going home. True to form, I’d prepared for the eventuality that the level of competence was lower than average (whatever average might mean) but this was worse. I had a single day, and the prospect of ever reaching the heights of the active voice was receding fast.

Let me make this clear once and for all. The apostrophe is an animal that is used for two purposes and two purposes only:

  • To show possession:
    Dawn’s boat is moored off the coast of Cannes (I wish!).
    Someone has to own something for an apostrophe to be necessary. (This excludes ‘its boat ‘, when referring to, say, a dog that owns a boat!)
  • To indicate a dropped letter:
    It’s not fair that I don’t actually own a boat.
    In this example, the dropped letter is ‘i’ (from ‘it is’).

The apostrophe is not used in any other circumstance. Do not be persuaded by men selling apples, women making pies or teenagers sweeping hair (sorry to all you grammatically correct grocers, bakers and hairdressing assistants out there!).

Yes, I am the type of person who has read Eats, shoots and leaves, The Grouchy Grammarian and Elements of Style. And, I will be silently correcting your grammar.

Do you have a bee in your bonnet about any element of punctuation? Which one? Tell us in a comment.