I Love Typography

Apostrophes don’t swing both ways

I admit it. I have a serious apostrophe pet peeve. I hate to see backwards apostrophes used in place of omitted letters.

Example: I’m really into rock ‘n’ roll, especially from the ‘60s.

Those reversed marks get me every time. Might as well just stick the sharp end of an apostrophe in my eye. Whenever I see the marks used improperly on television signage, I fire off e-mails to the shows’ “contact us” links. I yammer on about the correct use of these marks to my visual communication students. I seek out examples to scan or photograph that illustrate this common mistake.

And recently, after delving into the subject of apostrophes in even greater detail than I ever anticipated, I felt ready to sign up and join the club on some Web sites I stumbled upon, including: The Apostrophe Protection Society (a site “with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark…”) and Apostrophe Abuse (a collection of “links and visuals illustrating an orthographic pet peeve.”

Who knew that the apostrophe could generate such impassioned pleas for proper usage?

The mark is a simple one, and Wikipedia offers a succinct description of it typographical characteristics: “The apostrophe originates in manuscript writing, as a point with a downwards tail curving clockwise. This form was inherited by the typographic (or typeset) apostrophe ( ’ ), also called the ‘curly apostrophe.’ Later sans-serif typefaces had stylized apostrophes with a more geometric or simplified form, but usually retaining the same directional bias as a closing quotation mark.”

For some people, it’s difficult to figure out where and when to use an apostrophe to indicate the possessive in nouns and pronouns (Is it the peoples’ or the people’s clubhouse?), but at least the apostrophes in these cases usually hang correctly (if they’re there at all).

An apostrophe is an apostrophe is an apostrophe, I tell my students. When used to indicate omitted letters that fall on the left side of the letters than remain, don’t turn it into a right closing quotation mark (like you see in this slice of Boston Cream Pie I ate recently, above). It’s as simple as that.

Another Wikipedia tidbit: “Misused apostrophes are sometimes referred to as ‘idiot’s apostrophe,’ a literal translation of the German expression ‘Deppenapostrophe,’ which criticizes the misapplication of apostrophes.”

“Idiot!” is exactly what I want to shout out to the professional writers of TV shows who don’t have a clue which way the apostrophe swings.

I’ve witnessed apostrophic (“of or characteristic of apostrophe,” says one online dictionary) occurrence on national television a few times recently, which prompted me to fire off a couple of e-mails to Court TV and the E! Channel. (Even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart used an apostrophe incorrectly in the name of a book title on a sign that sat behind the host’s desk — but I let that one go.)

The response to my e-mails (from my perspective, a huge copy editing favor?) Zilch.


I’m not over the edge yet. But when I am, I may have to seriously consider joining The Apostrophe Abolition Campaign (www.killtheapostrophe.com), a Web site “for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.”

[Julie Elman is an assistant professor at the School of Visual Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Before moving to Athens in 2005, she worked in the newspaper business for 15 years as a photojournalist, picture editor and designer.]

Download this article as a PDF!


I wonder whether anyone can name the typeface used in the first image — to set ‘60s.


  1. This makes me think we need typography mnemonics. Like, the apostrophe is a nine every time.

  2. Ian
    I like the sound of that. Great idea—apostrophic even! There were nine red apostrophes hanging on the wall, and

  3. Is the typeface some variety of Cloister? Such an extreme axis on the “0”.

    So, Julie, how about a visual example of the right way to typeset “‘60s”?

  4. Alec
    Good guess but, no not Cloister. It’s difficult to identify with so few glyphs.
    Here’s an easy one for you: name the face used in the header of this article ;)

  5. Um, is it Minion? ;)

  6. Alec
    There appears to be a “Minion” theme developing—ever since Hamish suggested its use for naming one’s first-born. Oh, in fact, it was you.

  7. nick




  8. I would’ve guessed Caslon, but I don’t think that’s a web friendly font. I’m not sure that it’s Minion; the barbs on lowercase “s” in Minion are slightly flared, at least in my version, where the one above is perfectly perpendicular to the baseline (ooh! I sound like I know what I’m talking about!). Hmm, on second thought, not Caslon either… stress on the 0 is different. 6 and s are very similar though. Ok, web fonts, hmm.

    Julie, you have enlightened me to the plight of the apostrophe. Thank you! Next I suppose you’ll talk about people using foot/inch marks (can’t remember the name of those right now!) prime marks in place of true curly quotes? Oh, and pleeeease address baseline shifting your parenthesis up when using them in phone numbers! BIGGEST PET PEEVE EVER!

  9. Hehe, I just saw the iLT header. I like it!

    As to figuring out that typeface, if only I had Made by FontFont!

  10. This typeface can be L […] Livre or L […] Classic.

  11. Lauren
    I think you do indeed know what you’re talking about. Here’s a clue (not much of one but….): it’s a true classic that looks beautiful in print.
    I’ll leave Julie to answer your prime marks article request.

    I wonder whether you can name the face in the header for this article?

  12. Nice little article!

    PS - Johno, I have decided to make a properly beautifully typographic review for the book. Any font you want to see used ;)?

  13. Jean François
    As the designer of that beautiful face, I had a feeling you’d be able to identify it.

    Who can fill in the gaps?

  14. Cody
    That’s a great idea.
    I get to choose! Let me think. I have one in mind. I’ll get back to you. Thanks.

  15. An intriguing article Julie, thanks!

    Something certainly needs to be done about this apostrophe debacle, though I don’t think killing it is the solution. (Seems a little extremist to me :p) — I think just getting the message out there and setting a good example is the way to go.

    I’m not sure about the fonts in the article, but the header has a very Bauhaus meets Futura feel to it.

  16. I tried whatthefont on the ’60s but that didn’t work out the way I planned. (Oh did I use that Apostrophe correctly now?)

    No idea about the font in the header. The h is throwing me off.

    Off the fonts now: A very nice article, I hope there will be more like it. Oh, wait, there will;-) (n&m?)

  17. Ah, well then. The font must be Le Monde :)
    Ai-je raison?

  18. Le Monde Livre!

    Get back soon, I am going to start setting tonight!

  19. It is Le Monde then? I wouldn’t have guessed it without the help from Jean! It’s a very beautiful font! Now I get TWO t-shirts! Oh BOO! I guessed at the same time Hamish and Cody did!

    The header (iLT) is done in Sinn. That was easy! You have it as a featured font :P

  20. Squawk
    Did What the Font make any suggestions?

    Cody & Hamish
    Good work. Cody, that’s the face I’d like, please. Looks gorgeous whether it’s at 10pt or 1000pt.

    Bingo! Sinn, by Alec Julien, it is. I think you’ve earned about 10 t-shirts. In fact one of the t-shirts (they really are coming soon!) will be set in Sinn. If it’s any consolation, I wouldn’t be able to identify a face based on three glyphs.

  21. Billy

    “… dont.”

    I love it.

  22. Alrighty boss. I will be setting the review in Le Monde Livre paired with Le Monde Sans.

    It’s going to be quite short, but I’m sure the points will answer some questions.

  23. Johno
    Whatthefont made tons of suggestions but all of them had a positive axis… So obviously it didn’t really work. But now that we all now that it is Le Monde Livre, i must say that it is a really nice typeface.
    Bytheway, you will get another illu tonight.

  24. Cody
    Can’t wait to see it. That’s a mighty fine combo’.

    I just thought why What the Font wouldn’t stand a chance of identifying it: they don’t sell it. FontShop is the exclusive reseller.

    About the illu’, many thanks. Apologies for not having got back to you sooner on that. Really looking forward to seeing the next one.

  25. Those that enjoyed this post should read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Who would think there could actually be a book about punctuation that is fun to read?

  26. Tony
    I can’t believe I haven’t come across that book before. Thanks for mentioning it. Another one for the shopping list.
    Link: Eats, Shoots & Leaves—The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

  27. Ok, I just read the intro to that Eats, Shoots and Leaves… hilarious! John, I think you would love that book :) I am definitely a pedant. I hate it when people don’t use possessive apostrophes correctly! Yes, formal, detailed rules for me!

  28. Lauren
    You brought to mind a quotation from Henry Ward Beecher:

    The worst thing in this world, next to anarchy, is government.

    And my own version:

    The worst thing in this world, next to anarchy, is poor punctuation.

    And before anyone begins to search and point out my own errors in punctuation, I shall state now, that I am not a perfect punctuationalist ;) My main failing is mixing British and American rules of punctuation—especially when it comes to punctuation inside and outside of quotes.

  29. The interesting thing about our German Deppenapostroph is, that - different to the English language - we must not use apostrophes for telling about something belonging to somebody.

    So “Tim’s Nightclub” has to be „Tims Nachtclub“ in German.

    But because of the influence of the English culture, most people use those apostrophes, even in German texts.

    That’s what the original Deppenapostroph is about. It’s not the wrong shape in the first line, it’s the misuse in the genitive case.

    And, of course, some people really like the apostophe so much, they even use it for simple plural, like „Auto’s“ …

  30. Julie Elman

    Gerrit, Thanks for the clarification about the meaning of “Deppenapostroph.” Also, very interesting to read about the use (or rather lack of use) of apostrophes in the German language.

    Some of those apostrophe Web sites out there showcase lots of photographics examples of signs that show apostrophes used in all the wrong places. I think some people just think, “Oh, there must be one of those up-and-down marks somewhere in there since the word ends with an s.”

    Many years ago I had a hyphenated last name, and when I’d spell my name for people (say, someone who needed to write my name on form), I’d said “hyphen” to indicate where the hyphen was to be placed, and sure enough, some people would jot down an apostrophe instead.

    So I started saying “dash” instead of “hyphen” and that seemed to take care of that little problem.


  31. And, of course, some people really like the apostophe so much, they even use it for simple plural, like „Auto’s“ …

    No, what’s really the worst is using an apostrophe before an “s” and after, say, “90” to indicate the whole decade. As in “the 90’s.” I don’t like that much.

  32. Interesting rant/article johno. However, not as interesting as the discussion which followed.
    I appreciate pleasant typography, but, you guys are mad ;)

  33. Armen
    Nice to see you here again. Thanks for the compliment ;) :)

  34. I think the madness is rubbing off though, johno. I very nearly purchased Gotham yesterday. However, I don’t think my wife would quite understand (yet), paying out a fairly hefty wad of cash for a font!

  35. Armen
    Pleased to hear it.
    I have a potential solution for you:

    Buy Gotham for yourself, and some Underware for you wife.

    I’m sure she’ll be thrilled. And as it’s coming up to Christmas, you can kill two birds with one face.

  36. lol…

    You definately know how to brand yourself as a typoholic!

  37. Well, both a blessing and a curse of all the reading is how it helps to delay my drawing letterforms. I think perhaps I won’t actually end up doing it. But it certainly makes me more aware of what I see in front of me. I wrote about it on the last thread, but I need to repeat it here. I took a long, hard look at Goudy Old Style and I have to say: That’s one really fine font. I wonder if Goudy, the designer now, is not really so appreciated anymore and deserves a revival or at least a long, hard look—and appreciation of—his whole career.

  38. Oh, by the way—John, sorry to use your space this way, but … —LaurenMarie, after posting my Quark v. InDy comment to CreativeCurio.com, I keep timing out before connecting to it again. Since last night. I’d love to respond to your answers to my comment, but I can’t get there. ANd I don’t know if my replky via email got to you. I don’t even kn ow whose end the difficulty’s on.

  39. Funny article. :)
    When the forums are up I think there should be a pinned thread where we would all post “bad” typography and see if we can all see if we can catch what’s wrong with it. Oh and nice header! :)

  40. *blush* This is so embarrassing. It’s not you, it’s me (not so subtle hint to Johno: HELP! Get me set up with MT!). I did get your email, Stephen, just replied as a matter of fact. Sorry, sorry! Ugh… *covers face in shame*

  41. Robert
    Thanks. That “Hall of Shame” might well be a good idea. One reader recently sent me this “”Unnecessary Quotation Marks”” link.

    Have just mailed you.

  42. My God - can’t believe I just found this site! Where have you been all my life lol.

    Anyway, this post is kinda funny. I actually had to visit some site the other day to check on the correct use of an apostrophe. Bad I know. Never really noticed the reverse-apostrophe though. I will look out for it in future - although I probably won’t be firing off emails to highlight the incorrect usage…

  43. Acopic
    Glad you found us. Welcome to iLT.
    If you hang around here too long, you probably will find yourself sending those emails ;)

  44. And I should correct my sloppy em-dashing before I start getting emails from your readers.

  45. Ian
    Sounds like someone’s first words at a meeting of Punctuation”s Anonymous. ;)

  46. huh, haven’t had a time to check in here (on any other blogs) lately, and after reading this article and all the comments that followed, I once again realized how I missed the typenut craziness of iLT.

    Johno, thanks for adding a PDF version of your articles - just what I needed (btw, do you prepare each of the PDF versions yourself or auto-generate them?). I like visiting your site and read your articles and comments online, but sometimes I just have no time, so I print the post and savor every printed word later… :-)

  47. Vivien (inspirationbit)

    Julie kindly prepared the PDF version. In fact, it’s the only article to have an accompanying PDF. I would trust any auto generation. However, what I am working on is a print style sheet, so that just the article—minus the sidebar and header—will print.

  48. Josh

    Throwing change (2 cents to be exact).

    For me this would be a software issue combined with a laziness factor. It’s not that many people necessarily use the opening single quote - it’s that the software chooses it - and people don’t edit.

    When typing a word document the software looks for, and auto-corrects, a certain sequence of characters. If you have a [space][apostrophe key][character string] the software automatically interprets this as quoted material; therefore, turning it into [space][opening single quote][character string] (as the software is also wont to do with double quotes) as seen in the rock ‘n’ roll example above.

    The software can’t decipher the ‘mission of characters within strings - it can only do what it was told to do - people have to take the time to override it (if the software allows them to that is).

    “Great…computers will start thinking, and the people will stop.”
    - Tron

    (Sorry for the double post - but my half-hour wasn’t up and I thought I was editing not reposting.)

  49. Slush

    While I agree with your take on the abuse the apostrophe has taken, for someone so peeved about lack of attention to detail you should know that the guy’s name is “Jon” Stewart, not “John” Stewart.

  50. Slush
    Thanks for visiting, and for pointing that one out. I guess no-one’s perfect :)

  51. Julie Elman

    Slush! Excellent catch. I KNEW there’d be something amiss in this article, but I thought for sure it’d be a punctation mistake. I should have been more careful in my fact-checking. Sigh, again.

  52. Paul Hardy

    Good article, however…..

    I hate to appear pedantic, but shouldn’t “Contrary to popular belief” start with a lower case c since it follows a colon and not a full stop?

  53. a Web site “for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.”


    Made me chuckle.

  54. I run a site that uses a lot of slang contractions. So you’re saying that the proper usage of the apostrophe is to always run in the same direction?

    shoot ’em up

    The only place to use the left single quote would be quoting within double quotes:

    Clem said, “Brian was yellin’, ‘Do it!’ so I done it.”

    Is that right?

  55. The error you complain about is not a case of a “reversed apostrophe” but the misuse of an opening single quotation mark for an apostrophe.

    For extra credit, discuss the colossal error in Unicode in which all uses of have the same character code, making it impossible to distinguish an apostrophe from a closing single quotation mark at the code level.

  56. Sonja

    I can totally understand you. But if this is any comfort for you: here in Germany the people can’t spell things correctly either, the apostrophe is just one of the problems. Actually you don’t really use apostrophes that much in German ^^
    Well, usually I wouldn’t tell you but since right spelling seems to be very important to you — in German, you write apostrophe without the “e” at the end, so it’s “Deppenapostroph”.
    Please don’t take this as an insult or something, I really liked your article!

  57. @Paul
    The Chicago Manual of Style suggests capitalizing the word following a colon. My personal preference is not to capitalize; it really is down to one’s personal preference.

    @NE Lilly
    Looks as though you’ve got it. Your examples are correct.

    When you ask,

    …proper usage of the apostrophe is to always run in the same direction?

    you’re really asking the wrong question. The apostrophe always ‘runs in the same direction’—otherwise it’s not an apostrophe (see Joe’s comment).

    T’was can also be written as twas, BTW. Thanks for dropping by. Hope to see you here again. Apologies that it took so long to reply to your question.

    Many thanks for pointing out that :)

  58. @johno

    …The apostrophe always ‘runs in the same direction’…

    So then applications such as Microsoft word are inadvertently inserting a left facing single quote in places that normally would just get an apostrophe?

  59. @NE Lilly
    I don’t use MS Word, but I would guess that that is indeed what it’s doing. Very frustrating, I imagine.

    For those who forget,

    9 apostrophes for emphasis; never 6!

  60. Ohh… loves the apostrophe and the creativeness of stretching it beyond its boundries… if u think about it, its actually quite a symbolic. But why do without it? Albinora …

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