The apostrophe is used in writing contractions — that is, shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been omitted. In standard English, this generally happens only with a small number of conventional items, mostly involving verbs. Here are some of the commonest examples, with their uncontracted equivalents:
- it is or it has
- we will or we shall
- they have
- can not
- he would or he had
- are not
- she would have
- will not
Note in each case that the apostrophe appears precisely in the position of the omitted letters: we write can't, not *ca'nt, and aren't, not *are'nt. Note also that the irregular contraction won't takes its apostrophe between the n and the t, just like all other contractions involving not. And note also that she'd've has two apostrophes, because material has been omitted from two positions.
It is not wrong to use such contractions in formal writing, but you should use them sparingly, since they tend to make your writing appear less than fully formal. Since I'm trying to make this document seem chatty rather than intimidating, I've been using a few contractions here and there, though not as many as I might have used. But I advise you not to use the more colloquial contractions like she'd've in your formal writing: these things, while perfectly normal in speech, are a little too informal for careful writing.
Such contractions represent the most useful job the apostrophe does for us, since, without it, we would have no way of expressing in writing the difference between she'll and shell, he'll and hell, can't and cant, I'll and ill, we're and were, she'd and shed, we'll and well, and perhaps a few others.
A few words which were contractions long ago are still conventionally written with apostrophes, even though the longer forms have more or less dropped out of use. There are so few of these that you can easily learn them all. Here are the commonest ones, with their original longer forms:
- of the clock
Some generations ago there were rather more contractions in regular use in English; these other contractions are now archaic, and you wouldn't normally use any of them except in direct quotations from older written work. Here are a few of them, with their longer forms:
- it is
- it was
There are other contractions which are often heard in speech. Here are a few:
- 'Fraid so.'Nother drink?
- I s'pose so.'S not funny.
It is, of course, never appropriate to use such colloquial forms in formal writing, except when you are explicitly writing about colloquial English. If you do have occasion to cite or use these things, you should use apostrophes in the normal way to mark the elided material.
Contractions must be carefully distinguished from clipped forms. A clipped form is a full word which happens to be derived by chopping a piece off a longer word, usually one with the same meaning. Clipped forms are very common in English; here are a few, with their related longer forms:
Such clipped forms are not regarded as contractions, and they should not be written with apostrophes. Writing things like hippo', bra', 'cello and 'phone will, not to mince words, make you look like an affected old fuddy duddy who doesn't quite approve of anything that's happened since 1912. Of course, some of these clipped forms are still rather colloquial, and in formal writing you would normally prefer to write detective and alligator, rather than tec and gator. Others, however, are perfectly normal in formal writing: even the most dignified music critic would call Ofra Harnoy's instrument a cello; he would no more use violoncello than he would apply the word omnibus to a London double-decker.
Important note: Contractions must also be carefully distinguished from abbreviations. Abbreviations are things like Mr for Mister, lb. for pound(s), bc for before Christ and e.g. for for example.
Finally, there are a few circumstances in which apostrophes are used to represent the omission of some material in cases which are not exactly contractions. First, certain surnames of non-English origin are written with apostrophes: O'Leary (Irish), d'Abbadie (French), D'Angelo (Italian), M'Tavish (Scots Gaelic). These are not really contractions because there is no alternative way of writing them.
Second, apostrophes are sometimes used in representing words in non standard forms of English: thus the Scots poet Robert Burns writes gi' for give and a' for all. You are hardly likely to need this device except when you are quoting from such work.
Third, a year is occasionally written in an abbreviated form with an apostrophe: Pío Baroja was a distinctive member of the generation of '98. This is only normal in certain set expressions; in my example, the phrase generation of '98 is an accepted label for a certain group of Spanish writers, and it would not be normal to write *generation of 1898. Except for such conventional phrases, however, you should always write out years in full when you are writing formally: do not write something like *the '39–'45 war, but write instead the 1939–1945 war.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997
Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex