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I know that the apostrophe can be used to denote the omission of letters in a word, so I'm wondering then if 'em can be used to denote the colloquial shorthand for him, or if it would be more proper to use 'im (and that 'em is really just shorthand for them).

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    In AmE, 'em is them. I myself haven't ever seen 'im written for AmE, but it is sometimes said when following a word ending in certain consonants, especially g, e.g. hang 'im. But we might only be imitating John Wayne here. Jan 9 '14 at 0:24
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    In speech, it's very difficult to tell the difference between 'em and 'im. But there's no reason not to preserve the distinction in writing. Jan 9 '14 at 0:54
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    Steve McGarrett always pronounced his end-of-episode instructions on Hawaii Five-O identically. One suspect caught dead to rights: "Book'm Danno—murder one." Multiple suspects caught dead to rights: "Book'm, Danno—murder one." But I have no doubt that that so punctilious an investigator would have kept his written instructions exact and distinct—either "book 'im" or "book 'em," as their numbers dictated.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 9 '14 at 2:32
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I have only read or heard 'em used for them, though there is some disagreement in the comments (the discrepancy may be due to 'im and 'em sounding quite similar in speech).

You are correct that 'im can be used for him, and if you insist on butchering the language even further, you can use 'er for her.

However, keep in mind that these abbreviations typically aren't used in written language. The only case they should be used is when you want to emphasize the fact that an accent is being used. For instance, in Mark Twain's novels which take place in the South, those abbreviations are used when people are speaking, but are not used narratively.

In this example, the excerpt from the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is spoken, helping to emphasize the fact that Tom is speaking with the drawl and colloquialisms of Southern America:

“She! She never licks anybody – whacks ’em over the head with her thimble – and who cares for that, I’d like to know...”

While the narrative parts of the story do not use such colloquialisms:

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them.

And for reference, a quote from the sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, abbreviating him:

“Yes, Mars Sid, A dog. Cur'us dog, too. Does you want to go en look at ’im?”

Thank you to bib for providing the quotes.

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    It's called "eye dialect". And there is no standard, so 'em is as common with singular as with plural, just as 'd is as common with had as would, or 's is as common with has as is. They're totally indistinguishable in speech (not just "illiterate" speech) and therefore, if spelling rules are relaxt, there is no reason not to spell'em as you see'em, and tell'em I said so. Jan 9 '14 at 0:44
  • @JohnLawler: This question seems to be about written English, not speech. Jan 9 '14 at 0:52
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    @IQAndreas Tom Sawyer - "She! She never licks anybody—whacks 'em over the head with her thimble ..." No examples of 'im in that work.
    – bib
    Jan 9 '14 at 0:54
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    @IQAndreas In Huckleberry Finn - "Yes, Mars Sid, A dog. Cur'us dog, too. Does you want to go en look at 'im?"
    – bib
    Jan 9 '14 at 0:57
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    @JohnLawler Fact of life: most people have accents; I don't see it as offensive acknowledging that. And if you are a good writer (and providing the accent doesn't detract from the story), fictional characters are likely to have accents too.
    – IQAndreas
    Jan 9 '14 at 1:20
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Them. But don't forget that colloquial English uses "they" or "them" in place of one, to avoid sounding formal while avoiding specific genders.

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