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apostrophe: How do you sign "apostrophe-S" in American Sign Language (ASL)?

Also see: Possession


APOSTROPHE "S" / 'S / possessive S / twist S:






For what it is worth, as a general rule, in American English we do not "write" numerical years followed by an apostrophe and an "s." (Or at least we shouldn't do that if we want to get an "A" on our English paper in school).*


Incorrect: 1800's
Correct: 1800s

Incorrect: 1940's
Correct: 1940s

Incorrect: 80's (the decade)
Correct: '80s
Correct: eighties

Now the interesting / fun part:

In ASL we absolutely have a common sign for "TWENTIES" consisting of "20" plus what is typically thought of as "apostrophe-S" in the Deaf world (for example: "20's") to create the meaning of '20s and/or "twenties."

The sign we sometimes label as "apostrophe-S" could perhaps be better labeled as "twist-S." The cultural thing to enjoy here is that the "twist-S" is pretty much always associated with an apostrophe "S" or -- and this is the nerdy fun part -- "twist-S" is even associated with "just" an apostrophe without the "S."


While you are scratching your head on how the "twist-S" sign could mean an apostrophe (without the "S") let me have you consider the following:

That car belongs to the Vicars family.
Correct: The Vicars' car is black.
Incorrect: The Vicars's car is black.

Now, ask yourself "How would I sign that?"

Oh sure, you can monkey around and sign:

But you might also just sign:


Notice that in the signed concept "fs-VICARS twist-S" the twist-S is actually being used to create an apostrophe and *not* to add an "S" to the spelling of "Vicars."

Ahahahaha -- deep stuff here folks: "twist-S" therefore doesn't "just" mean "apostrophe + S" -- it also sometimes means "apostrophe" (following a previously signed "S").

Side note: Rather than the apostrophe meaning that a set of years "belong to" or are "possessed by" a certain decade (which sounds very logical) it is perhaps more …er…"grammatical" to think of the apostrophe as being used to form a contraction. For example "the 1940s is contracted (reduced down) to "the '40s." (The big word here is "elision" -- which is to say the apostrophe is serving as a "mark of elision" to indicate that something has been deleted or is missing.)

So two points:

1. If you write (in English) about years or decades you would do well to eliminate the apostrophe for "centuries" (for example: 1800s) and move the apostrophe leftward for decades (for example: "the '80s") -- or just spell decades out (for example "the eighties").

2. If you wish to discuss centuries or decades in ASL you should know a variety of methods including:
a. circling a C for century
b. using a dash for through
c. using a side to side sweep of an upright flat hand to show a range.
d. using a "twist-S" to indicate the use of an apostrophe (regardless of where the apostrophe appears in English).
e. using a shaking movement as an option to indicate decades for the '30s through '90s.

Hold on now.
The plot thickens…

Two things;
1. Prescription vs Description: Here we have "quite a few" recent English style-guides indicating that putting an apostrophe in a decade (such as 1970s) is bad (for example they say "1970's is bad). However, in everyday American life apostrophe-S forms are so common as to be near ubiquitous. For example, a google search for "1970's" in quotes with the --'s -- turns up About 33,900,000 results (0.58 seconds). So, apparently a few people "do" use an "apostrophe S" to write about the "1970's" …er…I mean the "1970s."

2. Prescription vs … older prescription:
Ahahahaha, (um, sorry) it seems, historically -- as in for a long while -- it actually "was" expected (by some authoritative sources) to include the apostrophe (for example 1970's = good).

Apparently, the "rule" changed! The rule (according to some sources -- which I helpfully name below) used to be, write "1900's" and then later the rule became: "write 1900s" (without the apostrophe). Also, when we say "rule" what we really mean in this instance is "more usually." (Garner, 2016 -- via Wikipedia: "apostrophe")

1. Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's ModernEnglish Usage. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2. [The apostrophe] is sometimes used to mark the plural of an acronym, initialism, number, or letter—e.g.: CPA's (now more usually CPAs), 1990's (now more usually 1990s), and p's and q's (still with apostrophes because of the single letters). From the reference list under Wikipedia's "apostrophe" entry.

2. Guide to Punctuation, Larry Trask, University of Sussex: "American usage, however, does put an apostrophe here: (A) This research was carried out in 1970's." retrieved from


So, while there is (sort of) a rule about the use (or not) of an apostrophe with centuries and decades -- that rule has actually changed over time and is currently ignored (in just one example) over 33,000,000 million times.

Your homework now is to look up the word "zeitgeist."

Allow me to wrap up here by paraphrasing "Vicars' second rule": Sign (and use apostrophes) the way your teacher wants until you get the grade you want -- then go out in the real world and do it like the natives do.

Also see:



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