Problems using the 'English' language

English grammar

Apostrophes (')

missing apostrophe

An apostrophe is used to show that something has been left out

This notice was seen in a shop window in Edmonton, Alberta. What the writer wants to say is " Smile you are on-camera", but what they have said is gibberish, so let us look at this in detail.



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What the apostrophe does

The apostrophe is written to show that something has been left out.

Start with the meaning our shopkeeper wanted to convey "Smile you are on-camera".

In everyday speech (s)he would probably have said something that sounded like "Smile your on camera" shortening the "you are" to something that sounds like "your". However, your means something that belongs to someone, as in "your pen", "your car",

We need some way of showing the difference between these when we write them, which is where the apostrophe comes in. It says "there is something missed out here".

Our shopkeeper should have written "Smile you're on-camera".

The meaning is now clear, you are has been shortened to you're so we know what the meaning is.

The observant reader will have noticed the hyphen in that example too, see the next section for an explanation.

How to use apostrophes correctly

Follow this simple rule and never again will you err with apostrophes.

Ask yourself, "What do I really want to say ?" and think the full sentence in your head before you write it down. So our shopkeeper would have thought, I want to say "Smile, you are on-camera", I will be missing out part of the word are, so that is where the apostrophe goes.

Do the same for possessive sentences - this is the coat of John that becomes this is John's coat.

Life becomes a little more complicated when dealing with plurals, but that process works just as well.

Examples of apostrophes for different meanings

To show where letters have been left out
don't do not
isn't is not

you are

'60s 1960s
To show possession
one man's book the book of one man
two mens' books the books of two men
the Smiths' house the house of the Smiths
Other examples
1960s the years of the 60s
MDs means more than one MD
MDs' opinions opinions of (plural) MDs

What the hyphen does

In this example the shopkeeper wanted to say the onlooker was "on-camera" in the sense that they were being filmed, rather than saying that they were physically on the camera, perhaps standing on the camera. The two words "on" and "camera" are linked together to form a compound noun, and that needs some way of showing it in the written text. That's where the hyphen comes in, it joins the words and tells the reader that they should be treated as one.

Here are some more examples of compound nouns:



In general hyphenation is a difficult topic. People are reluctant to use hyphens and their use can be the subject of much debate. The best advice is to look for the word in a recent dictionary and if you don't find it there, use a hyphen.