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Apostrophes: Use and Misuse

Updated on December 21, 2013

Hello, kids.

There is a reason why the word 'catastrophe' and 'apostrophe' look so similar. So many people misuse them. Entire chapters of grammar books are dedicated to the topic. I hope to get my main points about the topic across in one hub!

Let me start with a misuse. I don't know where people learned this, but I see this a lot.

The bird's outside my window sing beautifully. I hear dog's barking.

Both examples of the apostrophe are incorrect. If a noun (personal, place, thing, or idea) becomes plural, one of the rules for making a noun plural is to add an S. There are other rules, but that is not the purpose of this hub. So, to indicate that there is more than one of something, do not put an apostrophe in front of the S.

There are only two broad situations when apostrophes are used: to indicate possession and to form a contraction.

Apostrophes are used to show that something belongs to something else (typically an item belonging to a person). Some examples include the dog's leash, the book's cover, the pencil's tip, Marie's memo, Jake's cell phone.

You may have noticed that all my examples have a singular 'item' owning something. To indicate that one person/item owns something else, you add an apostrophe and an S ['s].

Now, admittedly, there is some debate in the literary world about the following rule. When a singular noun ends in S, there is always confusion. I can only teach you as I was taught. James owns a car. That is James's car. It may look and sound funny if you're not used to seeing it, but that is the rule. That may make more sense in a bit.

When you want to show that more than one noun owns something, the rule is to simply add an apostrophe after the noun.

the dogs' bowls (you have two dogs, each drinking from its own bowl)

the administrative assistants' desks (you're lucky to have two administrative assistants and they each have a desk)

Do you see the difference? one dog's bowl vs. the dogs' bowls

When you have collective nouns, such as women, men, or children, even though there is more than one person that an item belongs to, these function as singular. Thus, we treat them the same as the first rule.

the women's club, the men's choir, the children's school

Now let's look at shared ownership.

Bob and Larry own a business. It is Bob and Larry's business (or Larry and Bob's). Do not place an apostrophe on the first owner.

Bob and Larry own a business outside of which they park their cars. Outside of their office are Bob's and Larry's cars. You have to put ownership on both to indicate that they individually own something that just happens to be similar. If Bob owned a Lincoln and Larry owned a Ford, it would read Bob's Lincoln and Larry's Ford. You cannot combine the ideas.

There are also some situations where inanimate objects seem to own something, such as in a month's time. an hour's effort, a day's end. This is perfectly acceptable and these examples just follow the same pattern. When you leave a job, you give two weeks' notice... three months' probation... (I'm not sure why those two ideas came right after each other. Did you notice the use of I'm?)

Are you with me so far?

Now, the next use of apostrophes involves contractions. I am not the biggest fan of contractions, but I will certainly use them (like I just did with I'm). Contractions are formed when you join a pronoun (or name) with a short verbs like has, is, or are.

Some examples:

We would = we'd She would - she'd

We are = we're I will = I'll

Apostrophes in contractions essentially shorthand the word by substituting one (or more) of the letters. I speak in contractions, but I have been taught to discourage the use of contractions in formal writing, so I sometimes shy away from them in writing.

So, there you go. The two uses of apostrophes are in contractions and when discussing possession. Otherwise, step away from the apostrophe. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Just don't.



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