Proofreading Tips - Apostrophes

It’s autumn term. 

Let’s get back to school with… apostrophes! 

The tip for proofreading apostrophes is to use your Find function and examine every single one. And then search for every there, their and its – you may find you need a they’re or an it’s. As avid readers you all know how to use apostrophes. It’s the typing too fast that allows errors to creep in. 

So… back to basics, here’s a reminder of the uses of apostrophes: 

To indicate ‘possession’: 

The Magician’s Nephew, Carrie’s War, Charlotte’s Web, Saffy’s Angel, 

and there’s –

the magician’s nephew’s guinea-pigs (the guinea pigs belonging to one nephew of one magician),

the magicians’ nephew’s guinea-pigs (the guinea pigs belonging to one nephew of more than one magician), 

the magician’s nephews’ guinea-pigs (the guinea pigs belonging to more than one nephew of one magician) 

and the magicians’ nephews’ guinea-pigs (the guinea pigs belonging to more than one nephew of more than one magician). 

Take care when the noun is already a plural: children’s books, people’s palace, men’s shoes  
There are two possibilities if words end in ‘s’ – 
Iris’s book, Ross’s friends, the boss’s car, the business’s directors. 
This is what we say aloud so it’s now usual to write it this way too, though there’s a tradition of ancient names taking the following slightly awkward convention – Hercules’ manuscript, Archimedes’ contract, Ulysses’ book. Sometimes you see this used with newer names. As ever, with a choice, just be consistent. 

To indicate time or quantity: 

One week’s notice 
Two years’ experience 
Three months’ work 

Catriona's two cents' worth
These apostrophes are much beloved by grammar sticklers, but only the singular form is hanging on. So one pound’s worth of sweets, and one day’s journey, but I think the apostrophe for more is dying out. I suggest you keep the apostrophes in for the time being, to avoid giving a pedantic grammarian the satisfaction of pulling you up on this. That’s my two cents’ worth. 

To indicate missing letters: 

I’m sure it’ll be obvious what’s going on ’ere. 

And the rest – didn’t, hadn’t, she’d, I’ll, Jo’burg, etc. 

If you’re using apostrophes to indicate dialect (’orrible noises, banks o’ the river) remember to check if your font has dumb (straight) or smart (curly) quotes. If it has smart quotes you may have to manipulate an apostrophe or ‘close quote’ into position, rather than an ‘open quote’ (your Autocorrect function can sometimes get in the way of this).

This also needs checking if you’ve shortened a year (summer of ’68) or if you’ve used an old-fashioned affectation like ’phone or ’fridge. 

As mentioned before, the contraction to check is… it’s. This can always be expanded into ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. If it’s a possessive it’s always… its. 

It’s important to proofread your work in progress including its title page.  

I’d also recommend searching your document for we’re / were as well as they’re / their / there

And when you don’t need apostrophes: 

Plurals don’t need apostrophes – The Borrowers, Green Eggs and Ham, The Wind in the Willows, Where the Wild Things Are, 
even at the greengrocer’s – 
apples, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, 
and there are no apostrophes in abbreviations or decades these days – 
CDs, DVDs, MPs, 1950s, 1990s. 

Adjectival plurals (using one noun to modify another) don’t need apostrophes: accounts department, benefits cuts, customs officer, sports car… and I’m off to the drinks cabinet.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).


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