The Rogue Apostrophe

I pass by a new restaurant. Its newly-painted walls gleam in the sunshine. Vases of flowers on the windowsill beckon me inwards. The staff are friendly and promise a menu filled with culinary delights. And the heading on the daily specials reads: Panini’s. Panini’s what, I think? Their colour? Their texture?

We’ve all seen signs like these, passed them by without noticing the glaring error embedded in it, the rogue apostrophe. If you did notice, maybe you shrugged it off, or if you’re a word purist, maybe you winced. Who could imagine that such a tiny punctuation mark could cause such division, or be so prone to misuse?

A lot of confusion has arisen over how to use it. Societies have sprung up, calling for it to be abolished. Yet it actually has only two uses.

  • to show that something belongs to someone

This could be an object (John’s pen), or something more intangible (Anne’s happiness).

  • to indicate that letters are missing.

The apostrophe replaces the missing letter in common contractions such as let’s for let us. They even appear in song titles such as Summer of ’69 (shortening of 1969).

People using the apostrophe run into three main problems.

  • Its versus it’s.

Its is used to show that something belongs to an object or an animal, for example, a bowl belonging to a dog could be referred to as its bowl. It’s is a contraction. It is a lovely day becomes It’s a lovely day.

  • Apostrophes with s.

If a word already ends in s, such as dress, add an s after the apostrophe, for example, the dress’s colour.

  • Possession vs Plural

Apostrophes are never used in plural forms of words, unless you want to show that something belongs to more than one person. In the case of the panini’s sign, you are simply indicating that you are selling more than one panini, so you write paninis. But if you want to indicate that a book belongs to a few boys, you add an apostrophe after the s, the boys’ book.

You may ask why any of this matters. After all, you know what the restaurant means when it refers to panini’s. But in business, you want to make the right impression. You dress carefully to meet clients; you give them shiny PowerPoint presentations, you ensure that your business premises are clean and well-laid out.

It’s the same with words. Paying the same attention to detail in your language as you do in the rest of your business will make your message clearer to customers. Your words will match the image you’ve created for your business.

To test your apostrophe knowledge and find out more about how it works, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillwise/words

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