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Apostrophes for Dummies

Updated on April 16, 2011
Illustration by the author
Illustration by the author

The First Hub in a Series on Punctuation and Word Use

I’m a stickler for correct punctuation and word use.

It seems like the rest of the world is not.

How did I come to be such an oddity? I don’t know, but it ought to be of use to the growing percentage of people—writers included—who don’t know where to place a comma or an apostrophe. If you are interested in the why of my knowledge, I can only say that I paid attention in English class, I pick up the style of everything I read, and I write a bundle. Beyond that, maybe it’s just a born inclination. (Don’t worry, I’m horrible at math, truly dyslexic with it, and although I work on it all the time, I’m still not the best speller in the world).

But what I hope you really want to know is how to do your punctuation correctly. Why is it important, you may ask? When you make an error in your writing, it draws attention to itself. The flow that the reader has been enjoying in your Hub, your novel, your nonfiction book, or even your garage sale sign, stops quite awkwardly when you’ve misplaced a period or written "there" instead of "their," for instance. I can’t speak for every reader, but I know that if something is wrong like that, I cringe and think, This writer is unprofessional and needs a proofreader. How I wish they would hire me to edit their work!

I could cover lots and lots of common problems, but let's start with the apostrophe.

Illustration by the author
Illustration by the author

Possessives, Singular and Plural

An apostrophe is not to be thrown in whenever you want a plural! No, no, no! A simple s at the end suffices for most words, and if you add more than that many readers will at least sense something is wrong. The apostrophe indicates the possessive case, not multiple numbers.

Some examples to clarify:

Let’s say Henry owns several birds. (I just used another function of the apostrophe, the contraction, which we will discuss later). They are birds, not bird’s or birds’! But if you want to say whose birds they are, they are Henry’s birds. If you speak of the food he gives one of the birds, it is the bird’s food. But he’d better give the rest of the birds food or they will fight over it! So he feeds them all, and it becomes the birds’ food (plural possessive). Note that in the plural, ownership puts the apostrophe at the end of the word.

A word that does not change when it becomes plural still takes an apostrophe s only when it is possessive. For instance, when the sheep is a sheep among other sheep, one sheep’s food (singular) is the same as all the other sheep’s food (plural).

Then there are words that do not take an s for plural but change in other ways. Women is the plural of woman. (Please note the difference, as this is very commonly written wrong. Part of the confusion is that in pronunciation it’s the first syllable and not the second that changes, but in writing it’s the second syllable.) The woman’s purse is singular. The women’s purses is plural. If we talk, however, about hues, it is the woman’s purse’s color (singular possessive), and the women’s purses’ colors. Any questions?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the apostrophe is also used for certain plurals, such as “6’s” and “i’s.” Perhaps this is where some people have gotten the idea to throw them into all sorts of plural situations. Don’t do it! Remember that such a use of this little crescent is rare. When in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

What About Words Ending in S?

If a word ends in s in its normal singular form and you want to use the possessive form, put an apostrophe at the end of the word.

The Incredible Morphing Contraction

A contraction is different from a possessive but also uses an apostrophe. Contractions are two words made into one that omit part of one of the words. The thing to remember is that the apostrophe goes where the missing letters would be. Hence we have can’t, don’t, shouldn’t’, haven’t, all missing the o in “not.” The informal word “ain’t” is spelled like this. It is a contraction of “am not,” and doesn’t look much like “am” anything.

Watch Out for “It”!

“It” is an exception to the rule when it comes to the possessive form, because it would be too easy to confuse “its” (belonging to “it”) with it’s (it is). If you have trouble remembering, note that that no other possessive pronoun (his, her, hers, their, theirs) has an apostrophe, either.

Illustration by the author
Illustration by the author

Try It!

If you can learn these rules and practice the examples, you may go farther than many a writer whose work shows the same errors in critique after critique and gets rejection letters without explanation from publisher after publisher. If you can’t learn it, I hope that you will hire an editor…like me, for instance.

I have written this with a grain of humor and a lighter touch, noticing as I go that I am still a dummy too and don’t know all the rules and exceptions myself. Please comment if I have made any mistakes or omissions of advice that would be helpful on this subject. More hubs about punctuation and word use are forthcoming, and suggestions about their focus or approach would be welcome! Especially helpful would be links or book referrals to help refine our knowledge of clear writing. When we follow these simple rules, communication becomes clearer and understanding more universal.

It also makes us look smart!


Are you confident in your use of apostrophes?

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    • Robin Layne profile image

      Robin Layne 5 years ago from Oregon

      I have to take back my last comment. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary includes a listing of the word "wrong" as an adjective meaning "without accuracy : incorrectly." (Eleventh edition) Adding an "ly" to a word that is already an adverb is unnecessary. The error is understandable since "wrong" is also an adjective, and "wrongly" is indeed a word--as in, "I have been wrongly accused of being ungrammatical." (Sorry I took so long to correct that; I have been busy studying grammar, mechanics, and usage from UC Berkeley's online editing series. There is always so much more to learn!)

    • Robin Layne profile image

      Robin Layne 5 years ago from Oregon

      You are probably right about that, peterecco. But I would have written your sentences this way: "This is very commonly written wrong." Did you mean wrongly?

      Thanks for catching that.

    • profile image

      peterecco 5 years ago

      "this is very commonly written wrong" - did you mean you mean wrongly!!

    • profile image

      Chloe Seal 8 years ago

      I find that when you sayabout your maths (dyslexic)you put it well i find that very afencive

    • Robin Layne profile image

      Robin Layne 8 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you for your encouragement! It was needed. I have been concerned about getting my facts right on my next hub in the series, but I just happened to start drafting it today. It's about commas. There may be an infinite number of things to say about commas, but I will start by discussing the most common and noticable errors I see. I know it's hard even for me to be accurate in Internet conversations, and as long as I'm understood I don't need to worry about my typos, but when it comes to things that a lot of people will be reading and reading for a long time, on the Internet or off, it still matters to me that it's not confusing and that readers don't have to correct it for me in their minds to understand it.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I'm glad you posted in the forum about losing your response to Pharosian. That's how I found you. And this is an excellent Hub.

      I agree with Pharosian's correction, and I'm glad I saw it, because it would have been the only suggestion I would have made.

      I love your first illustration. Any one who has been an editor for a living can identify immediately. I can't say that I've ever corrected someone else's yard sale sign on the fly, but I always have a pen handy, just in case!

      It seems to me that most people have come to not care about correct punctuation and word use. I've been watching this transition for years, and it seems to have come about through the Internet and a culture that thrives on instant gratification. I share your concern, but at the same time, I quit puking at lousy grammar and punctuation a while ago, because I was wasting too much energy. Let it suffice to say that most of the time most of the writing by most of the people on the Internet is mostly understandable, mostly. It's just that I, the reader, have to work harder, and when I have to work harder, the author loses credibility, and I am less likely to visit again. Well said, Robin.

      Keep up the Hubs on punctuation and word use. I will be your faithful commenter.

    • Robin Layne profile image

      Robin Layne 8 years ago from Oregon

      Guess I stand corrected. Thank you, Pharosian. (I actually responed to this comment a long time ago, and I thought it posted, but I see now that it's not here.)

      Pharosian is part of my online writers' critique group, and we correct each other regularly.

    • profile image

      Pharosian 9 years ago

      Your recommendation for words ending in s is actually not the favored approach. Most traditional reference sources including "The Modern Language Association" and "The Elements of Style" state that the possessive should be formed the same way as for a word that doesn't end in s, and only allow exceptions for words that would be awkward with the trailing s. The Chicago Manual of Style prefers the traditional practice but says both are correct.

      So the possessive of the word boss is boss's, and the possessive of the word Jesus is Jesus'. This is generally because a multi-syllabic word or name ending in a sibilant becomes even harder to pronounce with 's added to it.