What is the semantic difference between apostrophe and single quote?

I see people use both of them interchangeably, but people never create two words to denote one concept. There should be a difference.

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    drm's answer is correct. Nonetheless, I have to take issue with your statement that "people never create two words to denote one concept". In fact, people do this all the time. They're called "synonyms" and we have tons of them. Jul 29, 2011 at 13:37
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    No @JSBangs, I don't think so. Synonyms are fundamentally interchangeable words, not exact words. Jul 29, 2011 at 13:42
  • @JSBangs makes a good point. Think of all the terms we have for the act of coitus, for example. (I chose that one because there are so many examples.)
    – Robusto
    Jul 29, 2011 at 13:46
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    @Robusto: That's slightly disingenuous. Exact synonyms abound in slang, obviously, and yours is one of the most common slang referents. But there are few (if any?) exact synonyms in "standard" vocabulary. Jul 29, 2011 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


An easy way to differentiate:

An apostrophe is only used within or at the very end of a word - it is part of the word.

In English, it serves three purposes:

  • The marking of the omission of one or more letters (as in the contraction of do not to don't).
  • The marking of possessive case (as in the cat's whiskers).
  • The marking as plural of written items that are not words established in English orthography (as in P's and Q's, the late 1950's). (This is considered incorrect by some; see Use in forming certain plurals. The use of the apostrophe to form plurals of proper words, as in apple's, banana's, etc., is universally considered incorrect.)

Single quotes are only used around words - they come in pairs, and are not part of any word.

Single or double quotation marks denote either speech or a quotation.

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    Some linguists go so far as to say that the apostrophe is a letter. Jul 29, 2011 at 13:27
  • +1 for thoroughness and balance over the third purpose. Technically I should be upvoting Wikipedia maybe, but it was you who found and linked it in here. Jul 29, 2011 at 14:33
  • There seems to be a bit of dispute as to when the third rule should apply. IMHO, it should be applied fairly broadly in cases where it may assist visual parsing and would not introduce ambiguity. For example, when talking about automatic teller machines, the plural is not pronounced "ai-tee-em-ess", but "ai-tee-ems"; to my mind, writing "ATM's" makes clear that the "s" should be regarded differently from the preceding letters. Other typographical indicators (e.g. italics or hairspaces) may be better than an apostrophe, but in many contexts the latter is more likely to copy/paste correctly.
    – supercat
    Oct 15, 2012 at 22:31
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    This is mostly correct. I take issue with saying that an apostrophe is only used within or at the end of a word. There are plenty of examples of contractions with leading apostrophes: 'tis the season; '68 Chevy Malibu; class of '24. Additionally, when properly typeset, it should never use a single-open-quote mark instead of an apostrophe. An apostrophe is typically interchangeable with a single-close-quote, but it can be different within a more specialized font face. One could be forgiven for using a neutral single quote in a pinch (an abhorrent anachronism of mechanical typewriters).
    – squareman
    Mar 12, 2021 at 21:30
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    Just a quick follow-up to my previous comment regarding the validity of leading apostrophes being valid: here is a more in-depth description with a simple mnemonic provided at the end for getting it right. Smart Quotes and Dumb Apostrophes
    – squareman
    Mar 12, 2021 at 21:40

You asked about the semantic difference, but there is also a technical difference - ASCII and typewriter keyboards do not have a 'single quote' character, only QUOTATION MARK (U+0022) and APOSTROPHE (U+0027). So people typing on traditional mechanical and computer keyboards use apostrophes both within and around words.

Some editor applications have context-sensitive "smart quotes" that substitutes typesetting characters when an ASCII character is typed:


And to make things more confusing, such applications may also substitute a right single quotation mark for an apostrophe even within words.



The apostrophe's proper useage denotes possessive form or missing letters/numbers.

The 'Single Quote' is to denote a quote within a quote. Also, often used for emphasis.


Apostrophes are utilized to denote possessive form of a noun and/or the missing letters/numbers when:

  • contracting multiple words

  • shortening a single word or date


Apostrophes may occur before within and rarely at the end.

Missing Letters Examples

  1. Within Word:

    • There isn't, to my knowledge, a use of apostrophes to denote a plural noun.

    • Still, can't say for sure there isn`t though a plural word place it at the end & not between its letters.

  2. End of the Word:

    • Others' background, training, and education may know more.

    • Most common use is to show nouns' plural and possessive form.

    • Also, ye' see ta' use of apostros' for slang 'nd da' speakers'wi't accent.

  3. Beginning of the Word:

    • Since `67, seen primarily at beginning of dates.

    • 'et da' be th't slang usage ta' think of.


Pronouns, acronyms and certain words denote possession without the apostrophes.


  • It's = contraction of 'It is'

  • Its = possessive form of 'It'

Single Quote

A 'Single Quote'is used for quotes within a quote. The off label usage is for emphasis when italics, bold, and underlining isn't enough.

  1. Quotes within a quote:

    Our English/Pshycology professor claimed, "The author states 'Word Processer's use of Smart Apostrophes are leading to the demise of the apostrophe by converting any at the start and end of a word to the angle quote.' which clearly shows ludite tendencies in the author's subconscious."

  2. Emphasis

    • Using 'single apostrophes' to call out a teen or phrase may be more common than for quote with a quote.

    • SMS before 'smart phones' added emojis led to many special characters being used to emphasize the nuances lost with text.


  • The post saw most apostrophes, (except with `67), as a 'code command'. This meant they where hidden and changed the font after the apostrophes.

  • Except for `67' all apostrophes where switched for 'single quotes'. I may have missed a couple.

Thanks for reaching the end.

  • Have a great week.
  • This would benefit from sources or citations. Welcome to EL&U. Please do take a moment to tour the site and see the help center.
    – livresque
    Apr 12, 2022 at 0:06
  • You seem to be under the impression that ` is an apostrophe. It is not. Unicode calls it a "grave accent", with ' being an apostrophe, and ’ being a "right single quotation mark". In practice, the "right single quotation mark" looks like a printer's apostrophe, so that's what is used. The grave accent is never used as an apostrophe. Ironically your edit has corrected the answer (with the exception of "`67").
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 12, 2022 at 8:33
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    'There isn't, to my knowledge, a use of apostrophes to denote a plural noun.' This has already been debated elsewhere on ELU and the jury is out. '... to my knowledge' usually indicates a lack of research shown (and, one might deduce, a lack of research). Apr 12, 2022 at 14:33

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