Believe It or Not: Apostrophes #3

For those who saw my recent posts on the wrong usage of apostrophes, here’s another one on apostrophes, this time using them in contractions.

Many of us create contractions in words without thinking, right? We often write “don’t” or “can’t” or “wouldn’t,” so that we don’t have to spell out “not.” We’ll write “we’ll” so we don’t have to spell out “we will.” And while it’s not necessarily easier to write, a contraction does convey a more casual and less dramatic tone than the full two-word verb phrase might.

We were taught how to create word contractions in school, but I think the underlying rule got lost. We use the apostrophe specifically and deliberately to show the reader we realize we have dropped one or more letters.

So “we would” turns into “we’d.” “Do not” turns into “don’t.” “I am” turns into “I’m.”

The apostrophe goes where the original letter(s) would be.

It’s not optional. It’s a real rule.

Are you with me so far? Does this make sense? Because if so, the answer to the question below should be easy to spot.

Let’s say we want to make a contraction of a decade. We could write “back in the seventies,” but we could also use numbers rather than the word.

But how should it be written? Your choices are (1) ’70s (2) 70s (3) 70’s (4) ’70’s

What do you think? Go back to the rule for forming word contractions . . . I’ll wait.

Aha. Yes, you see it now. It’s #1, right? And why? Because the apostrophe goes where something was left out, in this case the first two numbers (18, 19, 20 – whatever century you’re referring to).

Unfortunately, many writers think #3 is right, and while it’s not, at least they’re on the right track. But the apostrophe has to go where the missing numbers would be, and there were no missing numbers after 70. The missing ones were in front of 70.

Let’s say you’re writing a class reunion notice to the wonderful “kids” who graduated with you in 1981. If you were to write “The Class of 81,” you’d be saying there were 81 kids in the class. You would NOT be saying it was the year 1981. We’re not allowed to leave things out without showing that we know they used to be there.

And just to make you completely crazy (if I haven’t already done that) – we’re supposed to use the right-hand single quote mark, not the left. The set looks like ‘ ’ and you’ll have to make them both and then erase the left one. Thank goodness for computer screens!

So the next time you see a music promotion for “The Hits of the 50’s” you can be sure the writer meant well but never learned this rule.