4 Punctuation

4.2 Apostrophe

4.2.1 Possession

Use ’s to indicate possession after singular nouns and indefinite pronouns (for example everything, anyone):

the boy’s job

the box’s contents

anyone’s guess

and after plural nouns that do not end in s:

people’s opinions

women’s rights

With singular nouns that end in an s sound, the extra s can be omitted if it makes the phrase difficult to pronounce (the catharsis’ effects), but it is often preferable to transpose the words and insert of (the effects of the catharsis).

Use an apostrophe alone after plural nouns ending in s:

our neighbours’ children

other countries’ air forces

An apostrophe is used in a similar way when the length of a period of time is specified:

a few days’ holiday

three weeks’ time

but notice that an apostrophe is not used in adjectival constructions such as three months pregnant.

Use an apostrophe alone after singular nouns ending in an s or z sound and combined with sake:

  • for goodness’ sake

Note that for old times’ sake is a plural and so has the apostrophe after the s.

Do not use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns hers, its, ours, yours, theirs:

a friend of yours

theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Distinguish its (a possessive meaning ‘belonging to it’) from it’s (a contraction for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’):

give the cat its dinner

it’s been raining

In compounds and of phrases, use ’s after the last noun when it is singular:

my sister-in-law’s car

the King of Spain’s daughter

but use the apostrophe alone after the last noun when it is plural:

the King of the Netherlands’ appeal

Tranmere Rovers’ best season

A double possessive, making use of both of and an apostrophe, may be used with nouns and pronouns relating to people or with personal names:

a speech of Churchill’s

that necklace of her’s

In certain contexts the double possessive clarifies the meaning of the of: compare a photo of Mary with a photo of Mary’s. The double possessive is not used with nouns referring to an organization or institution:

a friend of the Tate Gallery

a window of the hotel

Use’s after the last of a set of linked nouns where the nouns are acting together:

  • Liddell and Scott’s Greek–English Lexicon

  • Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedies

but repeat ’s after each noun in the set where the nouns are acting separately:
  • Johnson’s and Webster’s lexicography

  • Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s comedies

An ’s indicates residences and places of business:

at Jane’s

going to the doctor’s

In the names of large businesses, endings that were originally possessive are now often acceptably written with no apostrophe, as if they were plurals: Harrods, Currys. This is the case even when the name of the company or institution is a compound, for example Barclays Bank, Citizens Advice Bureau. Other institutions retain the apostrophe, however, for example Levi’s and Macy’s, and editors should not alter a consistently applied style without checking with the author.

An apostrophe and s are generally used with personal names ending in an s, x, or z sound:

Charles’s

Thomas’s

Marx’s

Bridget Jones’s Diary

but an apostrophe alone may be used in cases where an additional s would cause difficulty in pronunciation, typically after longer names that are not accented on the last or penultimate syllable:

Nicholas’ or Nicholas’s

Lord Williams’s School

Jesus’s is the usual non-liturgical use; Jesus’ is an accepted archaism.

It is traditional to use an apostrophe alone after classical names ending in s or es:

Euripides’

Herodotus’

Mars’

Erasmus’

This style should be followed for longer names; with short names the alternative Zeus’s, for instance, is permissible. When classical names are used in scientific or other contexts their possessives generally require the additional s:

  • Mars’ spear

but
  • Mars’s gravitational force

Use ’s after French names ending in silent s, x, or z, when used possessively in English:

Dumas’s

Descartes’s

When a singular or plural name or term is italicized, set the possessive ’s in roman:

the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent

the Liberty’s crew

Do not use an apostrophe in the names of wars known by their length:

  • Hundred Years War

It is impossible to predict with certainty whether a place or organizational name ending in s requires an apostrophe. For example:

Land’s End

Lord’s Cricket Ground

Offa’s Dyke

St James’s Palace

St Thomas’ Hospital (not ’s)

but

All Souls College

Earls Court

Johns Hopkins University

St Andrews

Check doubtful instances in the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, or on the institution’s own website (other websites may be unreliable), or in a gazetteer or encyclopedic dictionary.

4.2.2 Plurals

Do not use the so-called ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, for example lettuce’s for ‘lettuces’ or video’s for ‘videos’: this is incorrect. The apostrophe is not necessary in forming the plural of names, abbreviations, numbers, and words not usually used as nouns:

the Joneses

several Hail Marys

three Johns

CDs

the three Rs

the 1990s

whys and wherefores

dos and don’ts

the Rule of 9s

However, the apostrophe may be used when clarity calls for it, for example when letters or symbols are referred to as objects:

dot the i’s and cross the t’s

she can’t tell her M’s from her N’s

find all the number 7’s

Such items may also be italicized or set in quotes, with the s set in roman outside any closing quote:

  • subtract all the xs from the ys

  • subtract all the ‘x’s from the ‘y’s

4.2.3 Contraction

Use an apostrophe in place of missing letters in contractions, which are printed without spaces:

won’t

we’ll

will-o’-the-wisp

bo’sun

Except when copying older spellings, do not use an apostrophe before contractions accepted as words in their own right, such as cello, phone, plane, and flu.

When an apostrophe marks the elision of an initial or final letter or letters, such as o’, ’n’, or th’, it is not set closed up to the next character, but rather followed or preceded by a full space:

  • rock ’n’ roll

  • R ’n’ B

  • it’s in th’ Bible

  • how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me

In contractions of the type rock ’n’ roll an ampersand may also be used: see 10.2.2.

There is no space when the apostrophe is used in place of a medial letter within a word:

learn’d

ev’ry

ma’am

o’er

Formerly ’d was added in place of -ed to nouns and verbs ending in a pronounced vowel sound:

concertina’d

mustachio’d

subpoena’d

shanghai’d

but a conventional ed ending is now usual in such words:

subpoenaed

shanghaied

The ’d construction is still found, usually in poetry and older typography, especially to indicate that an -ed is unstressed—belov’d, bless’d, curs’d, legg’d—rather than separately pronounced—belovèd, blessèd, cursèd, leggèd.

An apostrophe is still used before the suffix when an abbreviation functions as a verb:

KO’s

OK’ing

OD’d


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