Apostrophe Abusers Anonymous


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Yes, you!

Do you know how and when to use an apostrophe?

If you don't, or if you occasionally wonder if maybe, just maybe you might have misplaced one of those quirky little marks, read on!


Welcome to the second installation of my grammar and punctuation guides: Apostrophe Abusers Anonymous.

I see apostrophes misused more than any other punctuation mark. These poor little guys just can't seem to catch a break! Often, it's because people seem to have a vague understanding of this punctuation mark, knowing that they are supposed to use it to do something, though they're not quite sure what that something is.

So, let's take a look at what an apostrophe's job really is!


Apostrophes have two* uses:
  1. They indicate possession/belonging. (That book is Jane's.)
  2. To indicate an omission of letters or numbers. (It's, let's, '90s, etc.)
* They can also have a third and highly specific use, but I'll get to that later.

Possessive Apostrophes
No, not like a demon inhabiting someone's body-- but as in belonging to a person, a place, or a thing. Simply put, they indicate ownership.

When to use -'s
  • With singular nouns:
    • The kitten's fishstick. = The fishstick belonging to the kitten.
    • A monkey's dressing gown. = The dressing gown belonging to a monkey.
  • With singular nouns that end in -s:
    • His boss's ugly tie. = The ugly tie belonging to his boss.
    • My class's portrait. = The portrait of my class.
  • With plural nouns that do NOT end in -s:
    • The people's dance. = The dance of the people.
    • The children's keepers. = The keepers of the children.
  • With indefinite pronouns:
    • I found someone's tutu. = I found a tutu belonging to someone.
    • It could be anybody's. = It could belong to anybody.
Note: Sometimes when adding 's to the end of a plural noun that does not in in -s, the sound can be unnatural. If this is the case, consider rephrasing the sentence.
  • The geese's diabolical plot.
  • Consider instead: The diabolical plot of the geese.
Rephrasing isn't necessary as both have the same meaning-- one just sounds less awkward.

When to use -s'
  • Plural nouns that end in -s:
    • The dolphins' unwarranted accusations. = The unwarranted accusations of the dolphins.
    • The puppies' adorable invasion. = The adorable invasion of the puppies.
Note: When plural nouns end in -s, we use s' instead of 's to eliminate awkward and unnecessary sounds. Thus, you don't pronounce the s', but just say the word as it sounds in its plural form. If I were to rewrite the words above with 's instead, it would look and sound like:
  • dolphins's (DOLL-fins-ez)
  • puppies's (PUP-ease-ez)
While they still mean the same thing, they are technically incorrect. (And, let's be honest, they make you sound like Gollum.)

Possessive Proper Nouns
Proper nouns (names of people, places, or things that begin with a capital letter) have a slightly different set of apostrophe rules.

Use 's with:
  • Singular proper nouns that do NOT end in -s:
    • Jane's book. = The book that belongs to Jane.
    • Roger's mistake. = The mistake Roger made.
  • Singular proper nouns that end in -s*:
    • Zeus's lightning bolts. = The lightning bolts that belong to Zeus.
    • James's over-sized peach. = The over-sized peach that belongs to James.
*Note: Some prefer to use s' with proper nouns that end in -s, which is also correct. Since the sound can be different depending upon a speaker's pronunciation, this is left up to preference and opinion of which sounds less awkward. Both uses are technically correct and really just depend on the writer. (Personally, I prefer to use s', but I know some talented writers that prefer 's.) If you are writing for a class, it may be wise to ask what your teacher/professor prefers you use when writing for them.

Use s' with:
  • Plural proper nouns:
    • The Coopers' aardvark. = The aardvark that belongs to the Coopers.
    • The Waynes' butler. = The butler of the Waynes.
  • Singular proper nouns that end in -s* (see above note):
    • Agnes' imaginary girlfriend. = The imaginary girlfriend Agnes invented.
    • Mr. Burns' hounds. = The hounds that belong to Mr. Burns.
Omissive Apostrophes
Another use for apostrophes is to signify when letters or numbers are being omitted. Contractions are the most common instance of this usage. The rules for omissive apostrophes are much simpler than for possessive apostrophes!

Use an omissive apostrophe:
  • With a contraction:
    • Can't = Cannot
    • Let's = Let us
  • With a numerical abbreviation (most often used with dates):
    • I love the '90s! = I love the 1990s.
    • That record is from the '70s. = That record is from the 1970s.
Note: When using an omissive apostrophe, make sure you're putting it in the correct place! An apostrophe will never go at the very end of a contraction, and it will never come just before the "s" in an abbreviated date.


When NOT to use an Apostrophe
Apostrophes can be helpful, but there are times when we shouldn't use them, even when a word is possessive! But you said that apostrophes are used to show that something belongs to someone! I know I did, but the English language can be very tricky. We don't use apostrophes with some words, because those words are inherently possessive. This means that the word, in and of itself, already means that it belongs to someone or something.

Do NOT use an apostrophe with:
  • Possessive pronouns:
    • Ours = Belonging to us.
    • Yours = Belonging to you.
    • Hers = Belonging to her.
    • His = Belonging to him.
    • Its = Belonging to it. (do not confuse with the contraction "it's")
    • Theirs = Belonging to them.
    • Whose = Belonging to who. (do not confuse with the contraction "who's")
  • Nouns that are plural, but NOT possessive (even if they are an abbreviation):
    • Ducks = More than one duck.
    • Aardvarks = More than one aardvark.
    • TVs = More than one TV.
    • 1700s = The years spanning between 1699 and 1800.
  • Verbs! Never, never, never use an apostrophe with a verb!
    • Writes
    • Cries
    • Flails
*The Third Use
As I mentioned at the beginning of this guide, there is a third, very specific use for an apostrophe. In the event that you need to make a lowercase letter plural, use an apostrophe. However, an apostrophe should NOT be used for plurals of capital letters, numbers, or symbols. (In the unlikely event a number or symbol is part of a noun and you need to make that noun possessive, do use an apostrophe.)

  • Make sure you dot your i's and cross your t's.
  • Did you bring both Nintendo 64s?
  • I love the 1790s!
  • Did you see how many @s he used?


You made it! Go you!

I know that was a lot to take in, and if you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask! Also, if anyone finds any errors or has any additions to make, do let me know. Remember: if you are ever in doubt, look it up! c:

Thanks for reading and happy writing!
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