Traps for the Unwary, Part 3: Using Apostrophes

This is the third in a series highlighting common grammar and usage errors (in the American system, anyway) that can trap even the best writers if they’re (they are) not watching what they’re (they are) writing carefully.

Last week we talked about a way we don’t (do NOT) use an apostrophe, specifically to create a plural word.

This week we’ll (we will) look at the first of two rules for using an apostrophe: in a contraction of words or dates.

An apostrophe in a contraction shows that something has been left out. Use “X marks the spot” to remember it is always placed at the exact spot where the original letter(s) or number(s) would normally be.

There are hundreds of common contractions, and we can’t (cannot) cover all of them here. The point is that when we’re (we are) writing, we have to pay attention to each word.

In the last two sentences, I used “can’t,” which stands for “cannot,” and “we’re,” which stands for “we are.” Unfortunately, leaving out the apostrophe in many word contractions will NOT trigger spellcheck because without the apostrophe there may still be a perfectly good word that is spelled correctly, such as “cant” and “were.”

Spellcheck does only one thing: it checks spelling. It doesn’t (does not) and can’t (cannot) check usage. That’s (That is) our job as writers.

The two most common contractions that make writers look bad when improperly used are you’re (you are) and it’s (it is / it has). It’s (it is) worth checking your writing carefully — or finding someone else who’s (who is) an expert in English grammar and usage — to check it for you.

The other type of contraction is a date contraction, and it seems to be completely misunderstood. But it follows the same principle as a word contraction!

Let’s (let us) say you want to write about the 1960s (no apostrophe, just a plural), and you want to write the short form, the contraction.

What will you leave out in the contraction? The 19. So, where must you put the apostrophe? Before 60s or after?

Where was the 19 in the original phrase? Right. In FRONT. So forming a contraction of “the 1960s” means you must write “the ’60s.”

  • She was born in the 1920s (the ’20s), so she’s (she is) somewhere in her 90s.
  • He got married in 1999 (in ’99).
  • She graduated in the class of 2012 (in the class of ’12).

Thought 1: If you’re (you are) writing about a previous century, don’t (do not) create a contraction of a date unless the context is clear. It’s (it is) too easy for a reader to think of the most recent century because the contraction is the same for either.

Thought 2: Remember that ages or temperatures are plurals, NOT contractions, so there’s (there is) never an apostrophe in them.

  • Amy’s (Amy is) in her late 60s.
  • The temperatures will be in the high 90s tomorrow!