Words at work

– 4 min read

The problem with Guns N’ Roses

Jamie Wallace

Jamie Wallace

The semicolon gets a bad rap for being difficult to wrangle without falling into traps of inappropriate usage. But most people have no problem winging it when it comes to the apostrophe. 

Unfortunately, such false confidence often leads to grammatical disasters of — if not epic — at least moderately embarrassing proportions. 

While there are many ways in which a writer may go wrong with apostrophes, today we want to focus on a lesser-known mistake: something we’re calling the Guns N’ Roses problem.

Let’s start at the beginning. 

In her fabulously irreverent grammar book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves — The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss traces the apostrophe’s origin story all the way back to the 16th century:

All we need to know is that, in Shakespeare’s time, an apostrophe indicated omitted letters, which meant Hamlet could say with supreme apostrophic confidence: “Fie on’t! O fie!”; “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”; and even, “I am too much i’ the sun” — the latter, incidentally, a clear case of a writer employing a new-fangled punctuation mark entirely for the sake of it, and condemning countless generations of serious long-haired actors to adopt a knowing expression and say i’ — as if this actually added anything to the meaning.

Since chumming around with the Bard, the apostrophe’s life has gotten way more complicated. As Truss points out, the apostrophe took on the singular possessive case in the 17th century. And in the 18th century, printers started using the apostrophe in the plural possessive as well. 

Talk about an overworked piece of punctuation. 

The Guns N’ Roses problem is a much more contemporary issue that has arisen out of the trend to replace the word “and” with the letter “n.” That in itself isn’t a crime, but the blatant misplacement of apostrophes is.

The rule is straightforward. All you have to remember is that, just like in Shakespeare’s time, the apostrophe stands in for omitted letters. 

It’s not any different than your garden variety contractions like “don’t” (do not) or “there’s” (there is). The apostrophe is talented enough to replace numbers, multiple letters, or even whole words such as “they’d” (they would) and “o’clock” (of the clock). Pretty clever, apostrophe.

What seems to trip people up is having to use two apostrophes in the shortened version of “and.” The proper way to do this is to apply one apostrophe for the omitted “a” and another for the omitted “d,” which leaves us with: 


In which case, 

  • Guns N’ Roses becomes Guns ’n’ Roses
  • Kid ’n Play becomes Kid ’n’ Play
  • Peanut butter ’n jelly becomes peanut butter ’n’ jelly
  • Linens ’n Things becomes Linens ’n’ Things
  • Nice ’N Easy hair color becomes Nice ’n’ Easy hair color. 

Got it? Two missing letters. Two apostrophes.

A word of additional caution: curly quotes vs. straight quotes

There’s one more way this can go wrong because there are two types of formatting: curly quotes and straight quotes. Programming and coding languages always use straight quotes, but word processing software and content management systems likely have curly quotes, also called “smart quotes,” set up. (This post, along with all of Writer’s Room, displays straight quotes.)

If you’re using software that displays curly quotes, the direction of the apostrophe matters — it should always curve to the left. Unfortunately, most tools will insert an apostrophe so that it curves toward the text. That’s fine if you’re using an apostrophe to show possession, but not if you’re using it to show an omitted letter.

Now that you know this, you’ll see it everywhere — and we hope you’ll join us in a quiet-yet-committed crusade to save the world from misplaced apostrophes.