How to use the apostrophe
- get it right with this rule
Does the apostrophe matter (in Scotland and elsewhere!)? Here’s an easy foolproof rule on how to use the apostrophe - that tricksy piece of punctuation. St Abb’s Head but St Abbs, the village. St Andrews the town but St Andrew’s relics. Let’s sort it out!
Have you apostrophe anxiety? Does it matter? Well, here are some thoughts on using the apostrophe (not just in Scotland!) that I wrote a little while ago.
Of course, the examples are Scottish - after all this a website all about Scotland.
Read on - as there is an absolutely foolproof rule below that will mean you’ll never have to worry about that pesky piece of punctuation again….oh, except that it assumes you can spell plurals properly.
Och, that’ll be easy for a literary type like you. Here goes. First of all....
Does The Apostrophe Matter?
‘Loganair – Scotlands airline’ was painted on the silver flank of the plane that was going to take me to the Hebridean island of Islay. Though that was some years ago now, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Hmm. No apostrophe.’
Then I got to thinking that maybe whoever authorised the slogan also wrote the engine service manuals as well. Missing an apostrophe was a bit sloppy, after all. Maybe the servicing was sloppy too. I’m a jumpy traveller at the best of times...
Now, it could also be that at least half of you reading the first few words there didn’t even notice there was no apostrophe. Maybe it’s a generation thing. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.
But also maybe that apostrophe in the right place could win you that piece of business you pitched for in print or for a website.
Or that promotion or job application – heck, I don’t know half the stuff that goes on out there.
Irrationally or not, I do know I ‘mark down’ bad punctuation, especially if someone is trying to sell me something in print or on a website, and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I’m not trying to keep alive this punctuation convention here, but on the other hand…..hmm.
Maybe the apostrophe police should have a word…
Pictured here: haggis’s??? What? This sign in a butcher’s shop in Braemar offends the apostrophe purist on several levels. First haggis is fine as a plural anyway.
(I mean if it was more than one plate of, say, mince would you refer to that as minces, or, worse, mince’s, would you? Ditto haggis, surely?)
And, as we old-fashioned apostrophe users know, the punctuation character is used for possessives, not plurals.
An Apostrophe Is Not Necessary In Plurals
…he thundered. OK, what about the sign (pictured here) outside a cafe in St Andrews, that hallowed seat of learning. Dog’s welcome?
Dog’s breakfast, perhaps, as that’s who the breakfast belongs to, but the dogs here are welcome - hurrah! - but they are not possessing anything.
I mean, if they can’t get it right in St Andrews, then the apostrophe is doomed.
At least, if you look closely, it seems someone has attempted to rub it out!
And finally, (also pictured here) This Perth country store is just the place for cheap dog food (by the way!) but what is that apostrophe doing in an everyday plural noun? I’ll take my business elsewhere…..!!
So, leaving aside the question of whether or not the apostrophe is on its way to becoming the dodo of the punctuation world, here’s my foolproof method of how to get it right, every time.
And it couldn’t be easier.
The Apostrophe Rule
Ready? OK, imagine the apostrophe as a wee flag that you stick in as soon as you know who or what is doing the possessing and that the word (I mean the ‘possessor’) is complete and correctly spelt.
Referring to our example at the top of the page: the airline of Scotland? Scotland is doing the possessing, so it’s Scotland, then the wee flag apostrophe before the final s, giving Scotland’s airline.
The poetry of Robert Burns? Singular words that already end in ‘s’ cause confusion. It’s Burns doing the possessing, so flag it up with an apostrophe, and as the word already ends in an s, you get a choice if you want another s.
(Burns’s poetry. Does it sound right to you? Sometimes you see it like this. Otherwise it’s Burns’ poetry. )
So, it’s Scotland’s airline and Burns’ poetry (usually). Easy-peasy.
There was an architect called William Burn who in 1829-33 did a controversial makeover of the High Kirk of St Giles on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. So the makeover of William Burn is Burn’s makeover – apostrophe before the s signalling the name is complete as ‘Burn’.
Get it? As soon as you identify who did the possessing, stick in that little flag. If you don’t like the flag analogy, then imagine it as an arrow pointing left to the person(s) or thing(s) doing the possessing.
Pictured here) Go on, whose (lovely and recommended) walk is it by the River Earn in the Perthshire town of Crieff? Mary.
So stick in the apostrophe and make it Mary’s. I’ve a good mind to let the dogs off the leads just to spite them. That’ll teach the ‘cooncil’ to make punctuation errors.
So far, the possessing has been done by singular people, like Mary here, or things.
With plurals, same rule applies: as soon you can see who did the possessing – stick on that little flag.
The kilts of the boys. Several boys, eh? So, there goes the flag – boys’ kilts.
Here’s the important bit: you have to be able to spell the plural correctly. More than one lady is ladies. So the room belonging to these ladies is the ladies’ room.
(I mean, it wouldn’t be ladys’ room. now would it? Because that’s not how you spell the plural of lady. Savvy?)
It’s simple and foolproof. And don’t let these plurals that don’t end in ‘s’ fool you either. They’re ancient words from Anglo-Saxon, like children and oxen, and deserve respect.
In Scots we’ve got even more – for example, we have een for eyes and sheen for shoes, though you’d have to come with me to the places where you can still hear authentic Scots words…… Sorry, I wandered off the topic there.
Anyway, the shoes of the children? Well, it’s the children who do the possessing, so it’s the children’s shoes. Hats of the men? Wool of the sheep? Go on – it’s so easy so long as you can see what makes up a plural – in this case, men and sheep.
Think about it, you don’t get mens and sheeps as plurals, do you? Stick in that flag for men’s hats and sheep’s wool.
The apostrophe ‘grey area’
Admittedly, there are a few cases where it isn’t entirely clear-cut. Scotland has a wide range of farmers markets, for example. (They were apparently ‘invented’ in Scotland, the first one starting in Perth.)
Wait, though, perhaps I meant the markets of the farmers. So it should be farmers’ (sic) markets, strictly speaking - and this is mostly how you see it.
Apostrophes In Scottish Place Names
In Glasgow (in the Merchant City) there is a pub and bijou hotel called Rab Ha’s. This one is really complicated. Rab Ha’ is really Robert Hall, a famous Glasgow vagrant of the 19th century who was known for his huge appetite.
The well-to-do locals used to place bets on how much he could consume. He died - or perhaps exploded - in 1843.
As hall is pronounced haa in Scots, but our own tongue has no standardised spelling yet, haa has become ha’, indicating a missing letter in English.
But the apostrophe here is also implying Rab Ha’s place, in much the same way as we say ‘I’m off to my sister’s for the weekend’ meaning my sister’s house.
Finally, there are the Scottish place name conventions. You can visit the village of St Abbs (usually without an apostrophe) - and make sure you walk out to the spectacular St Abb’s Head (usually with an apostrophe).
Your ferry to Orkney may arrive at St Margaret’s Hope, and old Viking word for bay, associated with St Margaret. And you should find an apostrophe there, pretty consistently on maps.
You’ll enjoy St Andrews, the town, with no apostrophe, (and also St Andrew Square, in Edinburgh - which has entirely lost any suggestion of a possessive). But we still talk about St Andrew’s (sic) relics, which were carried to St Andrews in local legend.
Edinburgh’s famous Princes Street refers to the Prince Regent and was originally - you’ve guessed it - Prince’s Street - until it lost its apostrophe in 1848. (Yes, another reminder that this little punctuation mark is probably on its way out!)
Finally, aside from the possessive case, there are other uses for that little punctuation mark, usually involving a sign that there are missing letters or sounds. (This is often called ‘elision’.)
But that’s quite enough. Let’s keep the its or it’s confusion for another day.
And as for Burns’ (sic) poem Tam o’ Shanter: well, personally, I always spell it Tam o Shanter on the grounds that the o is a Scots word meaning ‘of’ , rather than the English word ‘of’ with a letter missing.
My, oh my, such a terrible rebel. A pernickety, carnaptious thing, the apostrophe…..in Scots or English, possession or elision.