The first, and today the most common, definition:
apostrophe 1noun — the punctuation mark ‘ used to indicate the omission of a letter or number, such as he’s for he has or he is, also used in English to form the possessive, as in John’s father and twenty pounds’ worth.Word Origin for apostrophe C17: from Late Latin, from Greek apostrophos mark of elision, from apostrephein to turn away
The second, and much less recognized, meaning:
apostrophe 2noun —rhetoric, a digression from a discourse, esp an address to an imaginary or absent person or a personification. Derived Forms, apostrophic ( ˌæpəˈstrɒfɪk ), adjective. Word Origin for apostrophe C16: from Latin apostrophē, from Greek: a turning away, digression
The second term can also be termed the aside, or rhetorical question, or even random exclamation. To wit: Why does such a tiny symbol have such an impossibly long name?
Controversy rages over correct usage of the apostrophe. I know it sounds unbelievable, but evidently large numbers of English-speaking people have no idea how to use it. Perhaps that’s because there are about a gazillion grammar rules for English, and almost as many exceptions. I wonder if apostrophes are used in Mandarin? Hmmm…
It’s all Gutenberg’s fault. Or Petrarch’s. Whatever.
According to Merriam-Webster, the mark that is now called the apostrophe may have originated in 1509, inserted by a scribe into an Italian edition of Petrarch’s poetry. Born Francesco Petrarca in 1304, he was considered one of the greatest love poets. But wait – since he died in 1374, how could he have randomly put an apostrophe in one of his works over a century later?
That is a very good question. Movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. In the next 40 years, printing presses were in use throughout Europe. Without a doubt, the popular works of Petrarch were available in print.
Blocks of type were of fixed dimensions, since they were metal or wood. Font sizes and letter spacing weren’t nearly as flexible as they are today. It’s logical to assume that one day an Italian printer ran out of room in his galley for a line of type. If even a smaller font size was still too large, he had an inspiration – he made another block for a tiny mark to signify that some letters were missing. The type would then fit in the galley, the meaning of the words was not lost, and everyone was happy. Presumably.
Another Country Heard From
Merriam-Webster puts forward another suggestion about the origin of the apostrophe, this time at the hands of a French printer, Geoffroy Tory, born in 1480 in Bourges. Educated in France and Italy, Tory developed a passion for bookbinding and editing. He wrote Champfleury, which was concerned with the proper use of the French language, and published it in 1529.
Over time, Tory acquired French texts to be printed, during a time when only Latin texts were preferred. He wanted to reform French spelling to more closely align with its roots in Latin, so he introduced the apostrophe, the accent and the cedilla. That’s the little squiggly hicky on the bottom of a ‘c’.
About a year after Champfleury was produced, Tory was appointed official printer to King Francis I, and in 1532 he was named as a librarian at the University of Paris.
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Originally, the apostrophe was employed to mark places where letters were missing, for convenience probably. Or maybe just because. Like any new ‘thing’, different people decided to use it in various ways, and sometimes its usage didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Apostrophes were used to mark the removing of letters that weren’t pronounced. Usually these were vowels, for example, ‘marked’ would become ‘mark’d’. That makes sense, kind of. But some folks went to extremes, like the 17th century poet, Robert Herrick. To wit: ‘What fate decreed, time now ha’s made us see.’ Others would leave out whole sections of a word. For instance, ‘forecastle’ (part of a ship) was shortened to ‘fo’c’s’le’, and today the short version is used more often. Sailors would laugh you over the rail if you said, ‘forecastle’.
Eventually, as employment of the exotic apostrophe became more widespread, its positioning settled into fewer options. It began to denote possessiveness (John’s) and contractions (I’ve, they’d, she’s, they’re, it’s). And those two groups are the main reasons today to use this punctuation. There are some others, and we’ll briefly explain here. Hopefully any remaining confusion can be cleared up.
Rules of Engagement: Apostrophe
This grammatical term means the action of squishing words together and cutting out the letters you don’t need. Normally it’s used in subject/verb combinations, for instance: they would = they’d, that is = that’s, John will = John’ll.
Sometimes it’s used in other ways, like droppin’ the last letter of a word. See what I did there? And there are some special cases, but y’all prob’ly ain’t usin’ ‘em. 😉
To show possession with single nouns that don’t end in ‘s’, simply add ‘s: Mrs. Johnson’s cat’s kitten.
For single nouns that do end in ‘s’, tack on just the apostrophe: Mr. Williams’ motorcycle.
To make a possessive with plural nouns that already end in ‘s’, just add the apostrophe: the kittens’ claws, the birds’ feathers.
For plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’, add the apostrophe + s: children’s books, men’s suits.
For some indefinite pronouns, add apostrophe + s: somebody’s responsibility, nobody’s fault.
BUT DON’T add anything to possessive pronouns that already show ownership: its, your, yours, his, hers, their, theirs, our, ours.
Forming a Plural
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Most of the time, just add ‘s’ to dates, acronyms and family names: 1950s, CDs, Pedersens. But at other times, add apostrophe + s, to avoid confusion: p’s and q’s, 20’s, CEO’s.
When 2 or More Nouns Own the Same Thing
In this case, when multiple nouns share ownership of something, add apostrophe + s to the last noun: Jeff and Beck’s website design, Ethan and Kirsten’s spring break.
But if they hold the same thing separately, add an apostrophe to each noun: the cat’s and the dog’s supper (they eat different kibbles), Lily’s and Kate’s artwork (they each do their own).
Because there are so many guidelines and exceptions for the use of our slightly schizophrenic little friend, in Europe there’s a new movement to get rid of it altogether. Proponents claim that its absence would greatly simplify communication. That kind of makes sense. Look at nearly any social media post.
I consider mastery of the usage of our little apostrophe at least as important as learning Photoshop, and far more intuitive. But then, I’m Alt Write (can’t say Grammar Nazi any more).