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Where does the apostrophe go in the short form for 'little'? Is it li'l or lil'? What about no apostrophe?

You can find examples of each online:

However, dictionaries like Lexico don't have entries for any of the forms.

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    The apostrophe is used to indicate elision: in cases like this, the letters dropped. That makes it "Li (tt) le" --> "Li ' le" and with the last e being dropped as it is anyway silent, --> "Li ' l" that is, "Li'l."
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 6:12
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    Why the down votes?
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 6:12
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    @Kris (1) If you're using the generalised definition of 'elision', as is necessary here (uses of the apostrophe in English: (a) The marking of the omission of one or more letters [Wikipedia]), li'l' would be more logical, and lil' justifiable by a tweak of your explanation. (2) the answer below spells out the actual situation rather than the situation predicted by shibboleth. Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 6:51
  • @EdwinAshworth There's no 'explanation' in the answer(s) below (?) further than the common sense, aka 'shibboleth,' above :)
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 9:10
  • @Kris But your 'answer' (in your comment) isn't accurate. The most commonly used variant seems to be lil'. Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 9:13

3 Answers 3

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Ngram shows li'l beating out lil' and li'l' since before 1900. (Note that you must press "Search lots of books" after clicking on the link.)

And since Lil is a very popular name (both as a first name and as a hyphenated portion of an apparently Arabic name), any Ngram results for that variant must be ignored.

But as @sumelic points out, the Ngram results are highly suspect, due to the inconsistent algorithm which Ngram apparently uses to process the single quote symbol. But even if we ignore the Ngram results, the following argument is still quite strong:

Li'l is understandably common since 1934 since the comic strip Li'l Abner was published from 1934 through 1977. This strip was extremely popular and was at one time read (in 900 newspapers) by 70 million of the then 180 million Americans, likely well over half of the adult population. Considering that hundreds of newspapers published this strip daily for 43 years, the frequency of li'l appearing in print almost certainly outstripped any other version by an order of magnitude. Likewise, since the strip was so highly read, the familiarity of the public with the spelling li'l would have been far above their familiarity with any other version. (But it's interesting to note that, according to Ngram, the li'l version was more popular since about 1900, well before the strip started.)

(Li'l Abner is a worthwhile subject of study for other reasons, since it is responsible for creating outright or popularizing several words and phrases.)

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  • @sumelic - Granted Ngram has a lot of limitations, but it's about all we have, other than the obvious fact that Li'l Abner appeared daily in hundreds of newspapers for 43 years, in terms of publishing frequency easily obliterating any other variant. And li'l was the spelling observed more or less daily by 70 million people over that time, making it incredibly unlikely that any other variant was better known.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 2:44
  • @HotLicks, Re "since Lil is a very popular name any Ngram results for that variant must be ignored", is there a way to search by a particular meaning of the homograph?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 15:26
  • @Pacerier -- You're welcome to crawl through the help text for Ngram to see if you can find a way to get a more precise/meaningful result.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 19:14
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The form lil is used, but the most common variant seems to be lil' (capitalized when it is a name).

Wikipedia

"Lil" is a kind of prefix and is the short form of "little". It is often spelled with an apostrophe as "Lil'" or "Li'l".

When used as a prefix in comic or animation it can refer to a specific style of drawing where the characters appear in a chubby, childlike style. These are normally characterisations of adults (real or fictional) and are particularly common in Manga or satire (such as Lil Bush).

and some examples (also from Wiki)

Lil' 1/2 Dead, American rapper

Lil B, American rapper

Lil'B, Japanese pop duo

Lil Bastard, American wrestler

Lil Bitts, Trinidadian musician

Lil' Boosie, American rapper

Lil' Bow Wow (today only Bow Wow), American rapper and actor

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    It's lil of course, but the most common seems to be lil' is nonsense, and spoils a good answer. Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 6:53
  • @Josh61 the capitalization seemed to earn you some down votes
    – Mou某
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 7:19
  • But Josh61 does add support for his counter-claim that the unapostrophised variant is the more common. And he got to the Wikipedia quote first. Though you attributed it the right way. Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 8:12
  • " "Lil" is a kind of prefix " ?? the whole concept of quoting "wikipedia" is just hilarious.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 8:23
  • I would bet you that "Li'l" appeared in print 100 times more often than any of the other variants, from around 1934 through 1977, at least. The reason for this is that Li'l Abner was a very popular cartoon strip, carried by most newspapers that carried any "quality" cartoons. And probably at least half the adult population read the strip. The strip is credited with creating several words outright and popularizing many other words and phrases.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 18:12
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What I learned in grammar school in the 1950s and 1960s

(And explaining in plain baby language where the ' goes when you shorten a word)

When you use the short form for a word, you put the ' in place of the letters that were left out to make the word's short form.

For example, the short form for the word LITTLE is LI'L.

Like "My dog is a li'l angel."

You are leaving the two letters T and T out, and so in their place goes the ' to indicate where the letters were omitted to take the word from long to short.... In this case, the E at the end of LITTLE is silent anyway, so it's not even treated. It's just dropped.

It's is the short form for It is. - The I in IS is left out and the apostrophe is put in its place to indicate where the letter was dropped to make it a short form word. Hasn't is another example. The apostrophe goes where the o in not is omitted. And so on...

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    You say it's L'IL but then write "My dog is a li'l angel." Can you fix the spelling please?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 20:02

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