Say “apostrophe” to any group of people who either love the English language (teachers, writers, editors) or hate trying to learn its convolutions (most commonly middle-school, high-school, and even college students who must write papers), and you will quickly have an argument. Some will say “Let’s get rid of apostrophes. They’re useless and confusing!” Others will say, “Why can’t teachers teach students how to use apostrophes correctly? They’re necessary for clarity.” The interesting thing is…they are both right!
Before we take on apostrophes, let’s clear up one common misconception: writing is not language. Human beings spoke for thousands of years before they reached a historical stage at which they needed to invent writing. Writing is only a means of representing language; it is not the language itself. Keeping that fact constantly in mind will help you negotiate the slippery journey from meaning to writing.
One indication that we can get along without apostrophes is that we do not pronounce them. We don’t even feel a need to draw them in the air, the way some people do with quotation marks. Still, half the apostrophes we use have a legitimate function: they indicate where letters are missing in contractions.
And that is a lesson teachers can teach and students can easily learn.
A thousand years ago, only a handful of people in any European country could read and write. Old English manuscripts don’t have contractions or apostrophes. It was not until the 15th century, when William Caxton studied under Gutenberg in Germany and returned home to England with the first printing press designed to print the English language, that contractions were invented. The first printing presses were a marvel in their time, but every page had to be set by hand, and paper and ink were expensive. So in order to save time, ink, and paper those early printers invented contractions.
Spelling contractions is actually very easy: a contraction is made up of two words put together to make one, with the missing letters replaced by an apostrophe. All you have to do to spell a contraction right is to figure out what the two words are that make it up, and what letters are missing. Then put the apostrophe in place of the missing letters. Here are some examples:
do not = don’t — the apostrophe replaces the missing o
I am = I’m — the apostrophe replaces the missing a
we will = we’ll — the apostrophe replaces the missing wi
let us = let’s — the apostrophe replaces the missing u
would have = would’ve — the apostrophe replaces the missing ha
(s)he would = (s)he’d — the apostrophe replaces the missing woul
they are = they’re — the apostrophe replaces the missing a
As you can see, the contraction is shorter than the original by the space between the words plus at least one letter. The savings can be as much as the space plus four letters. We continue to use contractions today because they are convenient and we’re used to them. Even in the exceptions that English always has to have, you can tell where to put the apostrophe with just a bit of thought:
will not = won’t — never mind the strange process by which ill turns into o–the apostrophe always replaces the o in not, as in can’t, hasn’t, don’t, etc. It’s a pattern.
Once you know how contractions are built, you will never again confuse it’s (the contraction of it is) with its, the possessive form of it. Like his, hers, theirs–pronouns do not use apostrophes to form possessives.
Remember, contractions are easy: put the apostrophe where something is missing. It’s possessives that are hard. Because of a mistake made by those same early printers, we are still suffering from wild apostrophes today. But that’s a subject for a different essay.