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Apostrophe Usage in Academic Writing

Summary

  • Apostrophes can be used to create contractions (shortened forms of words or phrases).
  • Apostrophes also indicate possession.
  • Overall, the apostrophe is not common in scientific writing.

Today’s article looks at that forgotten mark, the apostrophe. We’ll look at how the apostrophe is used (hint: you can see two ways in this paragraph!), with a focus on research manuscripts.

Despite their frequent use in everyday writing, apostrophes are very rare in scientific writing. This scarcity is largely a product of the desire to maintain a formal tone when reporting research, as several common uses for the apostrophe are generally considered informal. When these constructs get omitted from research manuscripts, apostrophes disappear with them. Here are several uses for apostrophes in English writing, with examples of how they’re used in scientific papers (if at all):

Contractions

Contractions are shortened versions of longer words or phrases. An apostrophe is used in place of the missing characters. Some examples from this post include we’ll (short for we will) and they’re (they are). Many contractions are unique, but terms such as what’s can mean either what is or what has (e.g., “What’s the capital of New Zealand?” or “What’s the cat been eating today?”). Because contractions are highly reminiscent of informal speech, contractions are almost completely avoided in scientific text.

Possessive forms

The apostrophe (along with the letter s) can also be used to create possessive forms in English (as in “Jack’s samples are in the freezer.”). Some believe that the use of the possessive form ascribes human characteristics to inanimate objects. Whether or not you agree, these forms are rarely seen in academic writing (like contractions). However, a handful of exceptions exist; these possessive forms are frequently accepted by convention:

  • Eponyms such as Student's t-test or Parkinson's disease
  • The phrase according to the manufacturer's instructions

Unusual plural forms

Finally, the apostrophe can be used in rare cases to create a plural form, particularly when using an s alone would create confusion. These strange plural forms are uncommon, but if they arise in a scientific manuscript, it is appropriate to use the apostrophe:

  • Plurals of individual lowercase letters: The writing sample contained 269 a's and 934 e's.
  • Plurals of words (when referring to the use of word itself): The number of maybe's from the survey takers was highest for question 5.
  • Please note that apostrophes are not recommended when naming a decade or pluralizing a number (e.g., write 1990s, not 1990's).

These are not the only uses for apostrophes, but they are some of the most common. If you have questions about your writing, send us an email. Best wishes!

Tags Writing a manuscript Editing tips Apostrophes Grammar Clarity in writing Punctuation Formal tone

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