The apostrophe : a rant…

The main issue that I have with teaching children about using apostrophes is that somebody had always got there before me and often created major confusion.

Bravo to the person that taught six year olds that could barely write their own names about apostrophes of omission. You taught them to recognise when the letters ‘-nt’ come together at the end of a word and showed them how to stick in an apostrophe to be all grown up.


Then you drilled them for a while, giving them worksheets which kept them quiet and  pleased their mummies, but never thought to introduce them to the fact that not all words that end in ‘-nt’ get an apostrophe.

The same happened with words ending ‘-ll’  or ‘-ve’.

Clearly, the little dears needed to be seen to make progress so, before they left the infants, the apostrophe of possession was introduced – but only the simple ‘s.


Again lots of worksheets, or maybe even ‘point and click’ activities on trendy apps, were bandied about in which every final ‘-s’ needed an apostrophe dropping in before it.

So, by the time I had them, aged 11, apostrophes were growing like mushrooms all over their writing…

I have genuinely seen the following.

I like to pain’t.
Wi’ll you come to my party?
Can I ha’ve a cup of coffee, please?
As he en’tered the room he saw a ghostly shape.

All of these are the result of what I call ”Apostrophes week”: maybe the infant department curriculum and planning documents clearly stated that these children must all be taught apostrophes no matter what their reading level or cognitive capabilities, or maybe teacher just felt like apostrophes were a good idea, who knows?

Of course, the children are keen to please, learn the trick and are rewarded with praise – much the same way  as I taught my labrador to sit, lie down, speak and close doors.

But the dog doesn’t really understand the actual words, she just knows that her actions please me and she gets a pat on the head and maybe a treat.

Although they fell out of fashion, worksheets are a useful tool and I do reckon that learning takes place more often with pen in hand than it does by clicking a screen. (If you call worksheets Skills Development, Assessment  and Consolidation Activities they become back in vogue…)

My only plea would be that:

Firstly, colleagues might not be so eager to teach the apostrophe at the lower end of the primary schools – may be get full stops and capital letters nailed first?

Secondly, introduce a thought process so that pupils have to think whether an apostrophe is actually needed; maybe chuck in a few questions in which an apostrophe is NOT actually needed and thus we might identify whether they have been taught a transferrable skill or simply conditioned to ‘sit on command’ in order to tick a box …

Rant over.

The colon

The colon has three main uses as a punctuation mark.

A colon is used to introduce a list.

Mary had four dogs: a labrador, a German shepherd, a boxer and an old mongrel called Jess.
There are four meals available to chose from at the event: pizza, curry, spaghetti bolognese and omelette.

A colon is not needed if the list is incorporated in the sentence.

The restaurant specialises in pizza, pasta and rice dishes.

A colon is used to separate two independent clauses when the second clause is an explanation or example of the first.

John could not go out on Friday night: he had no money.
At the start of the match there were three possible outcomes: we could win and be promoted or we could either lose or draw, in which case we would not.

A colon can be used to emphasise a word or phrase at the end of a sentence in a way which is more or less in line with the way the colon separates clauses in that the words after the colon provide an explanation of what has gone before.

Standing on the cliff edge there was only one thing that Butch and Sundance could do: jump.
As the aircraft was thrown about in the turbulence, there was only one place mum wanted to be: back on the ground.

Exclamation Marks 

An exclamation mark is placed at the end of a sentence that expresses:

An exclamation:

Ouch! You trod on my toe.
Oi! Get out of my garden.
Help!

In direct speech to indicate that the speaker is shouting:

“Look out!” shouted dad as he dropped the hammer.
”Get down from there!” yelled the teacher when he saw the boys climbing the tree.

When the writer finds something amusing:

When the clown appeared at the party all the children burst out crying!

There has, lately, been a trend in informal wnting to place multiple exclamation marks in writing, especially in social media.

Presumably this is to emphasise how strongly the writer feels about a particular topic. (…!!!). However, in formal writing this is generally regarded as bad form, as is combining a question mark with a question mark (…!?)

Question Marks 

A question mark should be used at the end of a direct question.

How many eggs shall I buy?
Where is dad?
Who would like an ice-cream?

Different types of question

Tag questions:
A tag question is formed by first making a statement then adding a ‘tag’ to turn it in to a question.

When the statement is positive the tag is negative and vice-versa as you can see in the examples below. Tag questions always end in a question mark.

We should have set off earlier, shouldn’t we ?
John ate all the crisps, didn’t he?
You don’t have any change, do you?
Mary has already set off home, hasn’t she?

Indirect questions
In an indirect question the speaker is reporting the asking of a question and not actually asking a direct question. Indirect questions just need a full stop not a question mark.

I asked mum if we could have a lift to town.
The teacher asked Paul to collect in the homework.
I wonder what I will get for Christmas.
I wonder why my uncle is wearing dark glasses.

Knowledge of the tagged question, the direct question and the indirect question should be enough to allow the general population to achieve the required standard as for as the UK National Curriculum is concerned.

Of course, there are other situations in which decisions need to be made about whether or not to employ a question mark. Teachers can decide on a pupil by pupil basis if their explanation will be appropriate or whether it might ‘muddy the waters’.

After abbreviations:
Sometimes a question might end with a fun stop whicn if part of an abbreviated name. In this case the question mark should come after the final full stop.

The car has broken down, do you have the number for the R.A.C.?
Is the Grand National being broadcast by the B.B.C.?

Polite instructions:
We Brits don’t like to appear brusque, so when we are telling people what to do we often couch the instruction as a request. When a polite instruction takes the form of a question, no question mark is required.

Would everyone wishing to purchase tickets please form an orderly queue.

Multiple questions for effect:
Sometimes as a literary device writers will offer multiple options at the end of a question. Each of the options should have its own question mark.

Who is responsible for a child’s education? the school? the parents? the state?

Commas :  finally, a few other bits… 

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

There are a couple of other interesting bits when it comes to using commas. They have, I am sure, very technical explanations which will almost certainly be beyond the ability of us mere mortals to comprehend. However, they are not particularly difficult to put into practice, so here goes..

Use a comma when addressing someone or something directly in a sentence:

Dad shouted ”Get down, Megan!” when the dog jumped up at grandma.”Mum, can we have fish and chips for tea?”

Remember that commas can save lives…

When children say, ” Let’s eat, grandad.” it is much less sinister than when they say,”Let’s eat grandad…”

With ‘however’:

When however means “on the other hand” or “but” it is usual to separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Mum wanted to go shopping. However, dad took us to the cinema instead.
Sports day is cancelled, however, it will now be held on Tuesday.

When however means “in whatever way” then the comma is not needed.

However hard he tried, Peter could not beat his friend John at snooker.

Commas : to separate clauses 

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

A complex sentence is one that consists of a main clause and at least one subordinate clause. When writing complex sentences, commas are used to separate clauses.

Being alone in the house, Sally was feeling afraid. 
I first tried tapas in Spain, whilst l was on holiday.

In the sentences above, the intended meaning would remain if the subordinate clauses were to be removed.

Though this level of information is probably sufficient in the primary classroom, it is worth noting that there are different types of subordinate clauses. Some of these clauses do not require commas to separate them from the main clause…

A subordinate clause that begins with ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘which’, ‘where’ or ‘that’ is known as a relative clause. A relative clause may be a restrictive relative clause or a non-restrictive relative clause.

Here is an example of a restrictive relative clause.

People who have ticket numbers between l and 50 may come to the front of the queue. 

A restrictive relative clause contains information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In the example, if you take out the clause ‘who have ticket numbers between 1 and 50’ then the whole point of the sentence is negated. This is a restrictive relative clause.

A restrictive relative clause should not have commas placed round it.

Here is an example of a non-restrictive relative clause:

Simon, who was simply not tall enough, could not ride on the roller coaster. 

In this example the clause ‘who was simply not tall enough’ is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it were to be removed,  it would not significantly alter the meaning of the sentence. This is similar to the way in which commas are used like brackets in a previous section.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t miss out the clause then you can leave out the commas…