I belong to a linguistic group where members discuss interesting questions about language: word formation, spelling, pronunciation… that is to say, everything related to this amazing world: the world of words.

Recently somebody asked about the correct form of writing a sentence in which an apostrophe was involved, and I realized that this tiny punctuation mark is often difficult to use even for people who usually write in English as it is their mother tongue. One of my colleagues thinks apostrophes are pesky because people don’t know how to use them; while another thinks the problem is that there isn’t an agreement on how to use them.

Let’s start with a definition: the Collins English Dictionary defines an apostrophe as the mark () when it is written to indicate that one or more letters have been left out of a word, as in “isn’t” [= is not] and “we’ll” [= we will]. It is also added to nouns to form possessives, as in “Mike´s car”. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as a mark () used to indicate the omission of letters or figures, the possessive case, or the plural of letters or figures.

We can say apostrophes are used for these reasons:

1. Missing letters. There seems to be agreement on the use of apostrophes to replace letters in contracted forms of be, have, modals, between “n” and “t” in contracted forms with not, in the first person plural imperative, and when the word is never written in full.

I’m (= I am) terribly sorry.

I’ve (= I have) no idea.

I’d (= I would) like to talk with you.

I can’t (= can not) see a thing.

Let’s (= let us) have a drink.

I was at the office at seven oclock (= of the clock)

I have recently recovered from a bout of  flu (= influenza)

(People nowadays usually write “flu” without the apostrophe, as in “phone”.)

2. Possessives. There is also an agreement on the use of apostrophes in front of an “s” added to a noun or pronoun, or after a plural noun ending in “s”, to show a relationship such as possession.

Mike’s car.

Charles’s wife. (Note that “Charles” ends in “s” but as it is a singular noun the correct possessive mark is ‘s but… you can find the form Charles’ too; it’s just a style choice.)

My parents’ house.

[Warning: It is not correct to use an apostrophe in front of the “s” of the possessive pronouns yours, hers, ours and theirs, or the possessive determiner its.]

3. Special plurals. Words which do not usually have plurals sometimes have an apostrophe when a plural form is written.

I got three A’s on the exams.

That song is from the 90’s. (You can also find ’90s and 90s here.)

It was a great idea, but there were a lot of if’s.

Then, where is the problem? It is not correct to use an apostrophe and an “s” to form a plural, but people often get into a muddle with this. You can find in coffee shops, in business meetings or at schools signs like “Place dirty mug’s on the tray”; “All team member’s should turn in proposals on Thursday”; “Parent’s, please sign up to bring something for the class party”(*).

So this is the key: It is not correct to put apostrophes in normal plurals. And an inspiring song to finish…

(*Examples taken from the Chicago Tribune article “Apostrophe’s lament“).

[Note: For clarity reasons I have used double inverted commas instead of simple ones when needed in this article.]


Here is another entry about punctuation marks in English. If you are curious about this subject, you may be interested in the fact that the punctuation now used with English is derived  from the one used with Greek and Latin. Maybe I could write another article about it, but now let’s read about the dash.

A Dash (—) is especially used to indicate a break in the thought or structure of a sentence:

‘If you work more than eleven hours a day, you have an increased risk of heart attack, according to research published last week so perhaps the old adage, “hard work won’t kill you” isn’t as true as we thought.’

It is used in front of a list or explanation:

‘You need some ingredients to make scones salt, butter, caster sugar, milk, self raising flour and eggs.’

After and in front of a group of words or a clause which adds something to the main sentence but could be removed:

‘The only trick if that’s the right word is that he is not doing it alone.’

In front of an adjunct, clause, or other group of words, for emphasis:

‘Oh Jane, this is great really it is.’

Note that a dash is written after and before a space.

Full stop

When you are writing in English, you start a sentence with a capital letter and you put a full stop (.) at the end of  it, unless it is a question or an exclamation:

     ‘He suddenly embraced her and kissed her lips.’

In American English, the punctuation mark (.) is called a period.

If you want to continue writing but in another paragraph, then the punctuation mark (.) is called full stop, new paragraph (Brit.), or period, new paragraph (Am.):

     ‘They were still awake. Ivan Ivanych, who was tall and thin, with a long moustache, was sitting outside the door, smoking his pipe in the full light of the moon. Burkin was lying on the hay inside, invisible in the dark.

     They were telling each other different stories and happened to remark on the fact that Mavra, the village elder’s wife, a healthy, intelligent woman, had never left her native village in her life, had never seeen a town or a railway, had been sitting over her stove for the past ten years and would only venture out into the street at night.’

The examples for this article are taken from Anton Chekhov’s Man in a Case (Penguin Classics edition 2010).

Inverted commas

As I have already written about inverted commas in Spanish language, I think it is a good idea to know how they are used in English writing.

They are called quotation marks or quotes in American English, and inverted commas in British English.  British writers use both single (‘  ‘) and double (”  “) inverted commas, but American writers tend to use double inverted commas (”  “).

The ones used to begin a quote are called opening inverted commas, and the ones used to end a quote are called closing inverted commas.

You put them at the beginning and end of direct speech:

     “No problem”, I said.

Note that you start the direct speech with a capital letter.

In American English the punctuation is put in front of the closing inverted comma, not after it:

     I couldn’t believe it when she called them “sad and lonely people.”

You do not give the first word of the continuation a capital letter, unless it would have one anyway. If you are giving more than one paragraph of direct speech, you put inverted commas at the beginning of each paragraph but not at the end of any paragraph except the last one.

The hierarchy of the inverted commas in English depends on the ones you use first: if you are quoting someone who is also quoting, you need to use a second set of them for the second quote; usually the inverted commas you haven’t use for the first quote, for instance:

‘What do you mean,’ she said, ‘by a “family trouble”?’

The same way as in Spanish, inverted commas are put round a word or expression which can be inappropriate:

     Her dress was ruined when a “friend” jokingly poured a bottle of wine over it.