The apostrophe has a lot of jobs.

  • It makes things possessive,
  • it indicates the omissions of letters in contractions and numbers in dates,
  • it is used to indicate strange accents in dialog, and
  • it indicates plurals of words and letters.

To complicate matters, it looks almost or exactly the same as the single-quote in many fonts and in handwriting.

I have read of proposals to use a distinct mark of punctuation for each task. What are some of these proposals?

  • It is used to set off internal quotes? You must be thinking of the quotation marks (or "inverted commas"), unrelated to the apostrophe (though the closing single quote looks similar to the apostrophe and may even be the same glyph in many fonts). Aug 6 '10 at 3:16
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    Yes, I realize single-quotes aren't technically the same as apostrophes. But they look almost (and sometimes exactly) the same, and I use the same key on my keyboard for both. So my question could be phrased better. I'll see what I can do. Aug 6 '10 at 3:25

I'm not aware of any serious proposals to change the English language that way, but for example the use case of separating (plural) suffixes from non-words, such as "the 1990's", is handled differently in other languages, for example with a colon in Swedish or (often) with nothing at all in German. So that can be one proposal. ;-)

If you don't like the similarity of apostrophe and single quotation marks, use double quotation marks, or if you want to be exceptional, French quotation marks: « ... »

The apostrophe in the possessive 's is actually a case of omission (the more or less literal meaning of "apostrophe"), because way back when the genitive suffix was -es. So that should probably stay the way it is in any case.

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    I'm not sure it would be a good idea to have multiple levels of double-quotes, but French quotes... That looks interesting! Also, I had never heard of that explanation of the possessive 's. Thanks for mentioning that. Thanks for your answer! It doesn't completely answer my question, but it is very helpful. Aug 6 '10 at 21:04
  • French quotation marks, a.k.a. guillemets. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillemets
    – nohat
    Aug 6 '10 at 21:11
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    I wonder if "air quotes" in French are done with a bend.
    – nohat
    Aug 6 '10 at 21:12
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    I usually write decades without an apostrophe, e.g. "the 90s" or the "1920s". And in fact, on a Google search, "1990s" outnumbers "1990's" by 3:1. Aug 7 '10 at 1:55
  • Yeah, I usually do the same. I think people are moving away from using the apostrophe there, thank goodness. Aug 7 '10 at 13:59

Which do you prefer?

  • Nice illustration of the point. Can't use all the codes the way shown in can't, though. Only the third seems to fit.
    – Kris
    Dec 20 '11 at 12:28

These characters already defined in Unicode.

‘Hello,’ said O'Donnell

  • Usually, ' and ’ can both be used interchangeably for the apostrophe and the closing single quotation mark. I don't know of any typographical standard that calls for using these two characters to distinguish the apostrophe and quotation mark.
    – herisson
    Nov 6 '16 at 20:12

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