Grammar Grumble – Apostrophes

The apostrophe is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks around. Probably because there are three different uses for it, each of which applies under some (but not all) circumstances:

-marks omissions in contracted words

-marks possession

-marks plural form

OMISSIONS IN CONTRACTED WORDS

Two-word contractions

The apostrophe replaces the letter(s) in contractions. The easiest way to remember where the apostrophe should be placed is to put it in the exact same spot as the letter(s) that were taken out.

Example:

Siobhan wouldn’t eat the sushi.  –> Would not

I’ll bring the birthday cake. –> I will

There’s a weird noise outside. –> There is

Someone’s going to get in trouble. –> Someone is

They won’t try to help. –> Will not

You’re simply amazing. –> You are

Please tell the kids they shouldn’t play with Mom’s jewelry. –> should not

*Ah! notice there is an apostrophe in Mom’s. Well, that is an example of a possessive apostrophe. Read on!

 

One-word contractions

This type of contraction is seen in casual or informal writing, or in dialogue where the author wants to reflect a regional dialect.

How you doin’?

We’re running late ‘cause of Henry.

‘K, I’ll get the papers together.

POSSESSIVES

For singular nouns, add an apostrophe + s

  • A book’s pages
  • The mouse’s ears
  • Mrs. Black’s house
  • My mom’s jewelry

For plural nouns that end in s, add an apostrophe

  • Three books’ pages
  • Five mouses’ ears
  • The Blacks’ house
  • Our moms’ jewelry

For plural nouns that don’t end in S, add an apostrophe + s

  • Children’s homework
  • Men’s golf clubs
  • The alumni’s meeting

>>> With this construction, keep in mind that the words where the plural is the same as the singular will have the same possessive form. For example, the deer’s glade could refer to a lone deer or a herd of deer, so make sure the context of your sentence is clear.

Its vs It’s

  • It’s is the contracted form of It is / It has. (YES apostrophe)
  • Its is a personal pronoun in the possessive form (NO apostrophe)

Many people stick the apostrophe in the personal pronoun form because they think all possessives take the apostrophe. The difference here is that no personal pronouns take an apostrophe, even in the possessive form.

It’s hot outside.  [It is] hot outside

The bird knows where to find its food.

Joint possession, make only the last noun possessive

Separate possession, make each noun possessive

  • Her mother and father’s house [joint possession]
  • My dog’s and cat’s food requirements [separate possession]
  • Phillip and Meg’s couch [joint possession–they own the couch together]
  • Phillip’s and Meg’s bathroom supplies [separate possession–they each have their own bathroom supplies]

Sibilants

Nouns that end in a sibilant sound (ce, x, z, s) generally only need an apostrophe + s to form the possessive of the singular; add es + apostrophe to form the possessive of the plural.

  • Mr. Jones’s farm                    the Joneses’ farm
  • Mrs. Schultz’s groceries        the Schultzes’ groceries
  • The lioness’s kill                     the lionesses’ kill

TIP: There are instances where you might find the s’s sound to be awkward. Dropping the final s is an option, and if you’re not adhering to a style guide, often the decision comes down to personal choice.

Mr. Jones’s farm      vs     Mr. Jones’ farm

PLURALS

Adding an apostrophe for clarity when we’re pluralizing numerals, letters, or words is a good rule of thumb.

  • We’re playing the Oakland A’s. [without the apostrophe, the word could look like “as”]
  • Type two i’s in the password. [without the apostrophe, the word could look like “is”]
  • She puts 0’s in all of her coded messages. [without the apostrophe, the word could look like “Os”]
  • Her podcasts are filled with “um’s.” [without the apostrophe, the word “ums” could look like a typo]

Beyond clarity, consistency is your best guideline. Below, each sentence is correct–just stay consistent with your choice throughout your piece of writing

Our motto includes the three C’s

-OR-

Our motto includes the three Cs.

 

The best music came out in the 1980’s

-OR-

The best music came out in the 1980s.

 

Are you kind to apostrophes? What rules trip you up?

2 thoughts on “Grammar Grumble – Apostrophes”

  1. Useful information here. I’m a fan of apostrophes and do my best when I use them. I think I do okay with them, but no doubt I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. I try to be a friend of proper punctuation, like all good English majors.

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