The apostrophe can be troublesome, no doubt about it. While there are many occasions when it should be used (judiciously, in the right spot…) let’s start with three of its former uses that no longer apply.

Contrary to many grocers’ blackboards advertising tomato’s or potato’s, the apostrophe does not have a place in forming plurals. Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves remarks that until the 1800s “one of the legitimate uses of the apostrophe … was to separate a plural ‘s’ from a foreign word ending in a vowel, and thus prevent confusion about pronunciation”1. Folio’s and quarto’s are Lynne’s elegant-sounding examples. We don’t do this now, and apple’s and banana’s are quite simply wrong (if endearing), and CV’s and URL’s are frowned upon2 – and beware, Word’s automatic spell checker often misses them all.

Likewise, we’ve dropped the apostrophe out of centuries and decades. These days we don’t usually refer to the 1960’s or 2000’s, but the 1960s and 2000s3.

Thirdly, we used to write plural expressions of time using an apostrophe: “We will hold the Board meeting in six weeks’ time.” These days, the apostrophe may often acceptably be left out, as the sense of these phrases is more descriptive than possessive4. For clarity, keep the apostrophe for a singular reference, such as “a year’s planning”.

The apostrophe is far from out of work, however. First, it brings order to possession (this is Mel’s editing and proofreading blog); second it’s rostered on when individual characters are off on leave (such as the it’s you have just read).

Fortunately, editors thrive on converting avocado’s to avocados, your to you’re, its to it’s, and whose to who’s – or back again as appropriate. We make subtle changes that can transform a confusing piece of writing into an elegant message.

And that’s what copy editing is all about – polishing your words to remove any impediments standing in the way of clear communication. Correct punctuation is an integral part of this, and it can make all the difference. Take Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday as an example:

“Were all going on a summer holiday…”

It looks like the apostrophe couldn’t make it, so we cancelled our leave.

 

 

Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books Ltd, 2003, p. 64.

2 Snooks & Co., Style Manual: for authors, editors and printers, 6th ed., 2002, John Wiley & Sons, p. 81, p. 153.

3 Of course, at hit Send we can edit using your company’s style manual, if you prefer.

4 Snooks, p. 87.