Spanish doesn’t have apostrophes

I’d been speaking Spanish for a couple of decades (well, maybe more) and teaching Spanish for a couple of years when it finally struck me, after red-inking yet another student paper with an abominable construction of the Paco’s libro ilk, that Spanish doesn’t use apostrophes at all.

The apostrophe-free nature of Spanish is possible partly because we reverse the word order of possessives, saying el libro de Paco — no apostrophe required. But it’s mostly because Spanish doesn’t have contractions. (There are two exceptions: al “to the”, from a + el, and del “from the”, from de + el, but these were grandfathered in hundreds of years ago.) Contractions mean dropping a sound, an idea that is anathema in Spanish. All sounds are fully enunciated, even double vowels as in leer “to read” or cooperar. Dialectal variations that involve dropping sounds (like final –s in Andalucian and Caribbean Spanish) tend to be looked down on. This full pronunciation helps to give Spanish its characteristic staccato rhythm.

For good measure, Spanish short-circuits situations that might tempt speakers into the sin of contracting: specifically, cases where identical sounds come into contact at a word boundary. So the word o “or” changes to u before a word beginning with o, as in siete u ocho “7 or 8” (compare to seis o siete “6 or 7”). Likewise, y “and” becomes e before a word beginning with i, as in bonita e inteligente “pretty and smart” (compare to bonita y alta “pretty and tall”). A different strategy applies to the word la “the” when it precedes a feminine word beginning with a. Here, the Spanish solution is to substitute the masculine form el, as in el agua “the water.”

The three cases of u for o, e for y, and el for la are akin to the English swap of an for a before a vowel, as in an umbrella (compare to a raincoat): again, a pro-active change to keep the two words from running together.

Of course, the lack of an apostrophe means that Spanish teachers don’t have to wade through the tedium of teaching its proper usage, as must English teachers. We’re thus spared the agonies of brook’s versus brooks’ versus Mr. Brooks’s. ¡Lucky us!

Update from 2023: Since writing this post I’ve seen apostrophes used to represent colloquial abbreviations such as pa’ for para. This is completely in line with the use of the apostrophe to denote deleted sounds, as in contractions.

7 thoughts on “Spanish doesn’t have apostrophes

    1. Lars N

      Yes, this blog is confusing.

      Are not ‘, `, ~ and !..¡ aphostropes?
      Or are they accents?
      What’s the difference between an aphostrope and an accent?

      1. jhochberg Post author

        Lars, my use of the term apostrophe is standard English. The apostrophe is the punctuation mark you see in the word don’t. The exclamation marks in ¡Hola! are punctuation marks as well. The tilde ~ seen in señor is not a punctuation mark, but rather a diacritical mark, a mark used to change how a letter is pronounced, like the dots over the German plural öffnen. The most important diacritical mark in Spanish is the accent mark you see in José. The Spanish word for this accent mark is — tilde. This is very confusing for speakers of English!

        1. Rebecca

          Wouldn’t it be called an apostrophe in situations like these? I’ve been thinking about this for a while, since I recently had to explain using ‘de’ to show possession and so many people online say it’s because there are no apostrophe’s in Spanish. Don’t use apostrophes to indicate an elision?

          Voy p’al monte.
          Que no me digan na’.
          Voy pa’ otro la’o.

  1. Pingback: Accent marks in Spanish are like apostrophes in English | Spanish Linguist

  2. Pingback: Bad Spanish — Guilty conscience 2nd edition | Spanish Linguist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *