Apostrophes–End the Abuse!

apostrophe intelligence

Perhaps it’s just that misery loves company. But I’m going to share some basic apostrophe rules anyway. 🙂

  1. Apostrophes are most commonly used in contractions. 
  • I am becomes I’m: I’m running as fast as I can.
  • They are becomes they’re: They’re really out to get me.
  • It is becomes it’s: It’s not just something I made up.
  • Mary is becomes Mary’s, and cannot becomes can’t: Mary’s too slow. I can’t save her.
  • Of the clock becomes o’clock, and we will becomes we’ll: If we can make to twelve o’clock, we’ll be safe.

Most people use apostrophes correctly in this instance. It’s really not that difficult. You just put an apostrophe where the missing letter(s) should go.

Although it’s worth mentioning three of the most abused contractions:

  • Could have becomes could’ve, not could of.
  • Should have becomes should’ve, not should of.
  • Would have becomes would’ve, not would of.

2. The other main use of apostrophes is to indicate possession.

If the thing being possessed belongs to a single person, it goes before the s. This one’s easy.

  • Mary’s lamb was actually quite dirty.

The only tricky bit to this is the word its. Its indicates that something belongs to it. I know, it should really be it’s, but it isn’t. It’s refers to the contracted it is.

  • Its fleece showed grass stains and had bits of leaves stuck to it.

If the noun doing the possessing is plural, and you add an s to make it that way, the apostrophe goes after the s.

  • The kids’ playground had an awesome slide.

However, if the plural possessive doesn’t require an s to make it plural, the apostrophe goes before the s.

  • The children’s playground had an awesome slide.

Matters used to be really simple here. You could just follow this rule, and life was good, even if a singular possessive ends in s.

  • Charles’s crown never fit properly.

You will not be wrong if you use apostrophes this way. It’s clear. Elements of Style recommends it. But some have gone to just putting the apostrophe after the s, and it’s happened enough that it isn’t considered wrong anymore.

  • Charles’ crown never fit properly.

I dislike the above example particularly because if the s is doubled, you always add apostrophe s.

  • The princess’s crown never fit either.

And if you have plural amounts of time or money used as a possessive adjective, put the apostrophe after the s, not before. This is usually gotten wrong, but at least word processors don’t tell you you’re wrong when you’re doing it right.

  • This is my two cents’ worth.
  • All the sailors should get three days’ leave.

3. Using Apostrophes with surnames.

There aren’t any special rules for this, but people get it wrong anyway. They get it wrong so often that it’s more often wrong than right. Even Word screws this up. I actually went online and checked in at AbsoluteWrite, because it was making me nervous that Word always marked me wrong.

Word almost always wants to see something like this: The Callahan’s. But really, that’s wrong twice. If you want to show a simple plural, it looks like this.

  • The Callahans came to the party. Word will underline it. It may even look wrong because it’s so often misused. Stick to your guns.

There’s also the case of a plural possessive.

  • We went to the Callahans’. (Because house is implied.)

You rarely have a use for Word’s preferred form, unless you’re using a single person’s first and last name, and they need to own something. It’s like this terrible glitch has worked its way into our collective psyche on apostrophe use. I even used to do it because I’d seen it done wrong way so many times. Don’t. There are no special rules for using apostrophes with names.  Do it correctly, even if it looks weird.

4. Apostrophes don’t make nouns plural. Get this through your head, even if you have to chant it like a mantra.

Apostrophes-dont-make-nouns-pluralPeople mess up on this, particularly with names ending in s. If anything ends in s and you want to make it plural, you add es. Even names.

  • Princess becomes princesses.
  • Weakness becomes weaknesses.
  • And Jones becomes Joneses.

It might look strange because it’s misused so often. But this is correct. Even if Word says it isn’t.

The other common screw-up is with initials. There’s still no special rule, but Word will mark it wrong.

  • More than one CD is CDs.
  • Children sing their ABCs.
  • More than one M.D. is M.D.s. (It looks so odd that you’d best stick to writing around it. Use medical doctors instead.)

And now, to mess with your brain, there is an exception to this. Single letters made plural get an apostrophe. But this is the exception, not the rule. This is for clarity. If we didn’t do it, it would look like a completely different word if you used a vowel.

  • The Oakland A’s won the pennant.
  • File this under the B’s.

5. Dates

(Insert a huge sigh here.) Apparently, there is no widespread rule to cover these. Have fun with apostrophes here. Just pick a form and be consistent. I don’t add apostrophes at the end because they aren’t needed, either for clarity or to show possession. But enough people do that you don’t have to worry about being wrong. I do use an apostrophe at the beginning to replace the missing characters, but not everyone does. So all of the following are in use:

  1. The 1930s.
  2. The 30s.
  3. The ’30s.
  4. The 1930’s.
  5. The 30’s.
  6. The ’30’s.

Just be consistent. Like I said, I use numbers one and three above.  You can decide to use four and five (or four and six). But whatever you do, have it make sense. Don’t use one and six, for instance. Or three and four. Have a reason for what you do.

This site goes into even more detail on apostrophes. And if you want to check your apostrophe skills, there’s a quiz at the bottom: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp

Now go out there and amaze the world with your apostrophe prowess.

Avid writer and reader, especially of fantasy. Learning about social networking and always interested in honing my writing skills. Contact me at cathleentownsend.com.

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