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They really, really do. They’re part of our language, of how we impart meaning. Our world is increasingly contextualized and presented to us within the creations of computer code – which is how you’re reading this now, of course. If you get something half as wrong as a misplaced apostrophe within a stretch of C++, make an error in meaning a fraction that small, the application’s going to crash hard. Make that kind of mistake in HTML or CSS, and you’ll be showing a blank page.

Our real language is the same, and I’m tired of people who go around driving cars and raising children and doing other complicated things, pretending that they can’t get their minds around something as simple as the apostrophe. We all make mistakes from time to time, but to not even know is just feeble. So here’s some information. Listen up, yo.

Apostrophes are used to show one of two things:

1. POSSESSION: That something belongs to someone or something else – “The vampire’s shoes”, for example. In cases denoting possession, the apostrophe always goes after the noun, be it singular or plural, which describes the owner/s of the shoes in question. If the shoes belonged to a family of vampires, therefore, it would be “the vampires’ shoes”, because we’re referring to the footwear of several “vampires”, not that of a single “vampire”.

– Here the apostrophe is acting like a little name-tag sewn into the noun’s shirt, telling you who thing/s belong/s to, and also whether the owner/s are singular or plural. Or vampires.

2.CONTRACTION: That something is missing. An apostrophe is also used to indicate that, through convention, a letter or letters have been missed out. The one in “don’t” for example, showing a missing “o”; or in “that’s the way it goes”. This second example showcases one of the most common usages of an apostrophe – a missing “i” from an “is”. Instead of “that is”, we write “that’s”.

– In this case something’s missing, so it gets a little marker, the one we call the apostrophe, to indicate the fact. It’s like a tiny history lesson, or an IOU for a missing letter.

You do not, therefore, need an apostrophe in the sentence: “I must take the videos back to the store”. I know it’s tempting to write “I must take the video’s back to the store”… But don’t. Because there’s nothing missing in the word “videos”, it’s merely a plural, and nothing belongs to the videos. And don’t write “I’m going to fetch some coffee’s…” either, for the exact same reasons. Just don’t do it. Seriously. Don’t make me come up there.

And that’s pretty much it. Simple, right? There is only ONE place where this gets even a tiny bit complicated, and that’s the word “it” – because “it’s” could mean one of two things:

a) Something BELONGING to “it” – the possessive form.

b) A CONTRACTION – short for “it is”

So in this single case, the world had to make a decision about what “it’s” was going to mean: possession, or contraction. And here is the news, my friends – the world chose CONTRACTION.

“It’s” means something’s missing. So to type “It’s a lovely day for procrastinating”, or “Turns out it’s really easy to get apostrophes in the right place – who knew?”… is correct. To write – as I once saw in a massive 16-sheet poster on the London Underground – “THE FILM WITH A .357 MAGNUM POINTED AT IT’S HEART” is horribly, depressingly wrong: “Pointed at it is heart”? Fucking morons.

So now you know everything you need to know, and can go around putting apostrophes in the right place all the time, thereby impressing the hell out of co-workers, dates and passing livestock. And yes, of course this stuff matters. It is absurd, lazy and disingenuous to pretend otherwise, an oppressive carbon footprint in the ecosystem of meaning, the conceptual equivalent of driving a gas-guzzling SUV of dullardry. Apostrophes aren’t just for decoration, something you throw in there because certain words look a little plain without them. It isn’t some pedantic little peccadillo, either, the kind of thing anal-retentive men and maiden aunts become hot and bothered about because they haven’t got other things to worry about, or because they’re not getting enough sex. It’s part of how our language works, a structuring tool, a way of establishing and explicating meaning in a very simple and elegant way. People who pretend otherwise are merely trying to hide the gaucheness they feel at not understanding something, or else they’re arrogant “I’m bigger than language” asswipes like George Bernard Shaw, who really couldn’t believe anything in the world was important apart from him and his beard – and who wrote really sucky and boring plays.

Two hundred years from now we may well have thrown apostrophes overboard (along with reading, and classical music, and other out-dated fripperies of culture, things that require a tiny bit of attention and have no flashing lights) but we haven’t yet. So if you get them wrong, you got it wrong. Don’t pretend otherwise. There ain’t no come-back, no excuse, no high-falutin’ defense about the evolution of written language. You’re just getting it wrong.

It’s that simple.


1. This rant was inspired in part by a dumb tweet by a superblogger who should know better. I’m not saying who.

2. Um, if anyone happens to spot a misplaced apostrophe in the above, could you let me know asap? Thank’s.


Says Who?

Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

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Said When?

April 2009
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