Apostrophe -- Rule for Use

Use an apostrophe when letters are missing

Despite the confusion about this and many variations, there is in fact just one place where an apostrophe is used. We use an apostrophe when letters are missing. These are where we deliberately shorten a word or phrase and then use an apostrophe to show that letters are missing; called contractions. For eg:

(In full) do not (Letters missing) o (Shortened form) don't , &
(In full) could not (Letters missing) o (Shortened form) couldn't
(In full) I am (Letters missing) a (Shortened form) I'm

So what about...Possessives ?? - The same rule applies: Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

To explain: English is an old language, but an ever changing one... it is a Germanic language. [and] It shares much in common with modern German. Some Germanic usage survives in English - gotten for instance.
The -en participle ending will be familiar to German speakers. Like modern German, old forms of English used a genitive case ending to show possession. This is normally -es.
For eg: the English The man's coat in German is Der Mantel des Mannes (The coat of the man). Note the -es ending on Mann to show possession.

So now let's (let us) go back a few hundred years in English. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales in the English of his time. What today we call the Knight's Tale he wrote as Knyghtes Tale. He also writes about the Kynges court and Goddes love. But in modern English, of all varieties, the "e" is missing. Coupled with modern spelling, Kynges court becomes King's court and Goddes love becomes God's love. The old -es possessive form in English is now missing, and as I am sure you will now remember: we use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

We can use this insight to help us place apostrophes correctly. Does the apostrophe come before or after the "s"? If we pretend we are Chaucer, it becomes easy.

Pretend Chaucer

Modern correct form

One parent and his or her children

parentes children

parent's children

All parents and all their kids

parentses children

parents' children

one boy with a lot of coats

boyes coats

boy's coats

lots of boys and their coats

boyses coats

boys' coats

childrens toys

childrenes toys

children's toys

Something that gets people confused is a word like children. (Making a plural with -en is another Germanic throwback.) Because they are not using the correct rule they assume that because children is plural, the apostrophe must come after the "s". So we get childrens' which is wrong. But my consistent system takes care of that. Think it through - take the example childrens toys. We can safely guess there is more than child involved here because of the word children. The "e" goes missing and the apostrophe ends up correctly before the "s".

Now can see that there really is only one rule!
Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.
  • Contractions - things like cannot becoming can't -- the no is missing
  • Possessive - like parent's children -- where the apostrophe stands in for the missing possessive word ending, no longer used in modern English.

[source: www.dreaded-apostrophe.com / 31-Mar-09]

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