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I see people use the single quote every now and then. I know common phrases like can't, you'll, I'd. But otherwise, I am quite confused why, when and how it should be used. To name a few,

  1. Sweet Child o' Mine (A song from the band Guns N' Roses)
  2. Jammin' (A song from Bob Marley)
  3. 'cause (short for because)

Update: after reading the links provided in the comments. I still have some questions. That is, how do I know when to use them? Or, when I saw them, how do I know what they stand for? Can I create omissions arbitrarily?

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Just missing letters 'K? – mplungjan May 7 '11 at 5:12
Incidentally, to be truly correct, you should have apostrophes on either side of the 'n' for phrases such as fish 'n' chips. They represent the two missing letters. For Guns N' Roses, you have to go with their trademarked name, even if it's incorrect. – Martha F. May 11 '11 at 1:47
@Martha F.: I notice you correctly put the spaces in "fish 'n' chips". I assume that something like "rock'n'roll" (without spaces) is incorrect? Although you see this quite often. – Snubian May 11 '11 at 2:28
@Snubian -- I would think so. They're not really one word. – Martha F. May 11 '11 at 23:37
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Thanks to the OP for amending his question to

how do I know when to use them? Or, when I saw them, how do I know what they stand for?

Unfortunately, as with so much in English (or any language really), a lot of it is just observation and rote practice.

It might help to remember that your first two examples are (somewhat) representative of elision in slurred colloquial speech. Jammin', or anything ending in -in', is pretty clearly an elision of -ing. You could use this for any verb and be well understood.

O' is a little less clear. It seems to have stronger historical roots (e.g., the luck o' the Irish) but in contemporary usage it represents of slurred into /ə/ (schwa). If I actually pronounce it /ow/, it's usually for comic effect such as the Irish example or in various cases of hipster irony.

'Cause is just a fairly standard colloquial form; I can't think of any pattern that applies to anything similar.

Can I create omissions arbitrarily?

As long as they're intelligible, sure.

But your next question is going to be how to tell if they're intelligible. Then we're back to where we started: Make a note of helpful patterns, listen for how native speakers elide certain sounds in speech, and experiment just to see if anyone understands you. :)

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Okay, this do answer my question. Seems that the only solution is, I have to gain more experience on this issue :( – Ivan Z. Xiao May 24 '11 at 21:23

In each case the apostrophe stands for omitted letters. Is your confusion because your three examples involve omission of letters at the beginning or end of a word whereas can't and you'll omit letters in the middle of the contraction?

The priceless Purdue OWL site draws no distinction:

  • shouldn't = should not
  • didn't = did not
  • could've= could have (NOT "could of"!)
  • '60 = 1960
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@CynicallyNaive: Succinctly put. I'd like to upvote you twice for taking the trouble to point out what could've doesn't stand for! (I won't stand for it either !-) – FumbleFingers May 6 '11 at 23:35
@FumbleFingers: Purdue deserves the credit, but I'm happy to steal it from them. ----- BTW, I note also that can't is a contraction of letters in the middle of a single word (cannot), shouldn't is a contraction in the middle of a word (not) when attaching another word, and you'll and I'd are contractions of the beginning of a word when attaching another word. Perhaps the OP's confusion is that o', Jammin', and 'cause don't involve attaching words. – CynicallyNaive May 6 '11 at 23:36
Is there really someone who thinks that "could've" is could of? – Alenanno May 6 '11 at 23:47
Could of is a woefully common misspelling. Google it if not convinced. – CynicallyNaive May 6 '11 at 23:58
@Alenanno. 'Fraid so. You'd like to think people who say I could of [done something] (and there are many) are just speaking lazily. But if you Google "I could of" you'll get over 9M results. I doubt they're all doing it facetiously. – FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 0:00

The use of the apostrophe (the technical term for the single quote used when not part of an actual quotation) to indicate missing letters is not arbitrary. Nor is it logical. It's simply based on standard usage.

The one marginal case that you include is Jammin' -- in this case, the apostrophe is used not as a standard meaning but simply to indicate a particular pronunciation that is used in the song.

In general, with the exception of o'clock, which is the standard, assume that using apostrophes in this way is an indicator of casual writing. If you want to be formal, you should spell out the word. If at any point you're not sure, you can consult a dictionary.

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