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Death to Common Grammatical Errors - Apostrophes!

Updated on November 22, 2013
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Ever lost marks in an essay or had an article or short story temporarily turned down for publication due to the need to "re-edit?" A large part of this may genuinely be concerned with poor sentence structure and word choices, all of which is frustrating, but bearable, as these mistakes are genuine difficulties which necessitate a large amount of time in order to be perfected. It's the simple grammatical errors, the ones you know you used to know, or know you read somewhere once, or always have to look up because you can never remember them despite having checked the rule two hundred times, that are the pesky, truly irritating elements of writing. These simple errors differ from person to person, but let's attempt to now examine one of the ones most commonly spotted, and to investigate potential techniques with which to perfect it.

The Apostrophe
The Apostrophe | Source

It's, its, it is ...

Okay, let's explore the murky world of apostrophes. "But this is easy, I learned this in primary school," perhaps you scoff, your finger poised on the "x" button at the top of the screen. Well, you'd be surprised by how many people have never truly grasped the rule of that pesky diagonal line. Take comfort in knowing, however, that despite all appearances, the usage of the apostrophe is actually fairly straightforward, and a simple explanation will hopefully put you right on track. Let's take a look, shall we?

Contractions

Some commonly contracted words
Some commonly contracted words
  • "It's a nice day today": Do we need the apostrophe? Well, does the sentence "It is a nice day today" make sense? Absolutely! This means that the apostrophised form, "It's", is correct in this example, as it's a contraction of "it is".
  • "The mouse fell off its wheel", however, does not require the apostrophe, as the sentence, "The mouse fell off it is wheel", makes no sense, meaning that in this case "its" forms no contraction and therefore does not require the apostrophe.
  • By the same token, "You're beautiful" requires an apostrophe because "You are beautiful" makes sense, whereas "Your house is very large" needs no apostrophe, as "You are house is very large" makes no sense.

Firstly: Apostrophes must be inserted whenever you contract a word from its standard to its abbreviated form. If you're ever unsure about whether an apostrophe should be inserted, read the sentence in its full, un-contracted form, to see if it makes sense. If it does, you know you need to insert an apostrophe between the first word and the contracted ending of the second. Try to get into the habit of reading all sentences in this way as you write or type, until the process of distinguishing a contraction from a normal word becomes second nature. However, it's important to note that contractions like this are generally not acceptable in academic pieces of writing, as scholars prefer to see the standard, full length version of words due to the professionalism it lends the piece.

Abbreviation
Standard Form
It's
It is
Can't
Cannot
I'm
I am
Aren't
Are not
You're
You are
  • "The trees swayed in the breeze:" In this case we've added an "s" to make the word "tree" plural, but we don't need an apostrophe because nothing in this sentence belongs to the trees, and the "s" therefore does not denote possession. If we try our name trick, we can see that a sentence like "The Billy's swayed in the breeze" simply doesn't make sense. You would have to say, "Billy swayed in the breeze", and so we can conclude that this sentence needs no apostrophe.
  • However, consider: "The tree's roots curled through the damp soil". In this case the roots belong to the tree, so the sentence is possessive. The "s" is therefore added not to make the word plural, as we are dealing only with one tree, but rather to make the sentence possessive. Again, try the name trick. The sentence, "Billy's roots curled through the damp soil" may not make sense in context, but it makes perfect sense grammatically, and would make sense if the tree bore the name "Billy". Therefore, we can see that the apostrophe is correct.
  • What if you want to say, "The tree's roots curled through the damp soil", but you're talking about more than one tree? Perhaps the roots of six trees are curling through the soil. Well, this is when the apostrophe shifts to the end of the word. Phrases like "the trees' roots curled through the soil" or "the dogs' kennels", ustilise apostrophes denoting both their possessive (the roots belong to the tree and the kennel belongs to the dog) and their plural (there are multiple trees and dogs involved) nature.

Possession

Secondly: Possession. Apostrophes are used to tell us that something belongs to someone. That, for example, "Peter's book is green". This is necessary, for in English words are made plural by ending them with an "s", so simply tacking an "s" onto the end of any old word is not enough to denote its possessive nature. Rather, something needs to be in place to tell you that a particular item belongs to someone. What if that particular item belongs to more than someone? What if it belongs to a number of people? Well, then the apostrophe shifts position from its habitual place between the last letter of the word and the added "s", to the end of the word itself. A good way of remembering whether a sentence is possessive is to sometimes substitute the person, place, or thing, with a name, as names only add an "s" in relation to possession or contraction, and therefore always require apostrophes. For example, if you're struggling to decide whether the "dog's kennel" requires an apostrophe, switch the word "dog" for the animal's name. We've already established that names with an added "s" must be apostrophised, and as "Billy kennel" makes no sense at all, we can see that "Billy's kennel" is appropriate. As the kennel belongs to Billy, it similarly belongs to the dog, so it needs the possessive apostrophe. Just remember that a purely plural word needs no apostrophe, that a possessive word needs an apostrophe between the second last letter and the final "s", and that both a plural and a possessive word requires an apostrophe after the final "s". And don't panic. Once you master the rule, you'll find apostrophes rather dull, I promise!

Plural
Possessive
Plural/Possessive
The cats were hungry
The cat's dinner
The cats' dinner
The bikes were red
The bike's wheels
The bikes' wheels
The trees on the street
The tree's leaves
The trees' leaves
Some English speakers debate the use of the apostrophe within signs like this.
Some English speakers debate the use of the apostrophe within signs like this. | Source

Some English speakers debate the use of the apostrophe within signs such as "Green Grocers", as it varies from this to "Green Grocer's" to "Green Grocers' " between stores, with seemingly little standardisation.

  • "Green Grocer's" is correct in the case of one grocer.
  • "Green Grocers' " is correct in the case of more than one.
  • "Green Grocer" is correct in the implication that the store belongs to no grocer, but is simply called by this name.

Despite this debate, however, all can be technically considered correct, and, although bothering some people, the apostrophisation in this scenario is not really a case of dire importance.

  • Take the phrase: "The men's vests". The singular version, "man", in its plural form transforms not into "mans", but rather into "men", meaning that it has its own plural form, rather than following the rule of simply adding a final "s". Because we know that "men" is plural, we know that a sentence such as "the men's vests" is referring to multiple men. There is no ambiguity, and seeing as the apostrophe shift to the end of the word is only necessary to make plurality clear, it need not take place in this case. An apostrophe is, however, still needed to denote the possession of the vests.
  • By the same token, "the women's makeup" obviously refers to multiple women, seeing as this is the plural form of the word "woman". Again, we do not need to shift the apostrophe, because plurality is clear, and it therefore only takes on the possessive feature, in this case, of makeup.
  • What about "the people's cars?" People is another one of those words that has its own plural form (person becomes people), rendering the apostrophe shift to denote plurality futile. Its placement in this word refers only to the possession of the cars.

The Tricky Bit

Don't worry, this section isn't too aptly named, but it's here because there's one part of the rule that often confuses a number of English students, and which I now intend to address. I stated above that "both a plural and a possessive word requires an apostrophe after the final 's' ", but it's important to note that this is only the case if the word does not have its own plural form. If you're now staring at your screen and scratching your head in blatant confusion, don't worry; I can assure you that it makes perfect sense when you give it some consideration! After all, we added the apostrophe to the word "tree's" to let people know that it was possessive. In order to then be clear about the fact that multiple trees are involved, we needed to shift the apostrophe to the end of the word (trees'). If this shift didn't exist, it would always be ambiguous as to whether the noun (in this case a tree) was singular or plural. However, this ambiguity fades entirely when the word has its own plural form, as in "man", which becomes "men". Because the word is not made plural by simply tacking on an "s", it's not at all ambiguous to leave the apostrophe in its original place (between the second last letter and the final "s"). As this word in itself is plural, we do not need to reinstate its plurality by shifting the apostrophe to the end of the word.

Singular Form
Plural Form
Apostrophe Placement
Man
Men
Men's
Woman
Women
Women's
Person
People
People's
Remember that when talking about crowds of people, or men and women specifically, the rule for shifting your apostrophe to denote plurality doesn't apply
Remember that when talking about crowds of people, or men and women specifically, the rule for shifting your apostrophe to denote plurality doesn't apply | Source

Remember that a word like "city" can have three forms: "cities", "cities'" and "city's". When do we use each one?

  • "Cities" is simply the plural form of the word, and will be used in a plural, but non-possessive context, such as, "The cities looked very bright."
  • "Cities'" is the plural and possessive form of the word, used, for example, to show the possession of the lights in the following sentence, "The cities' lights glowed brightly."
  • "City's", however, is the singular and possessive form, and might be used to say, "The city's lights glowed brightly," when only talking about one city.

One Final Thing to Note ...

Some students are confused by words like "country", "city", and "family", all of which have their own plural forms (countries, cities, families). It's true that these words are made plural by replacing the "y" with an "ies", rather than by simply adding an "s", however, in these words the apostrophe is still placed after the final "s", simply because "familie's" or "citie's" constitutes a spelling error. As these words end with an "s" already, another one doesn't have to be added at all, and so we simply keep the final "s", placing the apostrophe at the end. Therefore, in the case of discussing the houses of multiple families, we would say, "the families' houses". Similarly, in names ending with "s", such as "James", it is sometimes considered more acceptable to write "James' bike" than "James's' bike", because we already have the final "s" in place, and are therefore not required to add another. (Please note, however, that both forms are considered correct, and - just because English likes to be complicated - there is often much debate surrounding the issue of whether possessive words ending in an "s" should just add an apostrophe or should add both an apostrophe and another "s".) However, when we are talking about a possessive, singular word that gains an "ies" in its plural form, it is always correct to simply add an "s", separated from the word with an apostrophe. Therefore, we would say "the city's town hall" or "the family's house". Just remember that the only way you ever add an "s" directly to a word like "city" or "family" is when it has an apostrophe, and if it has an apostrophe, it must be used in a possessive scenario.

Singular
Plural
Singular/Possessive
Plural/Possessive
City
Cities
City's lights
Cities' trains
Country
Countries
Country's flag
Countries' laws
Family
Families
Family's house
Families' cars

I truly hope that this has aided your understanding of that often elusive apostrophe. Just try to remember these points:

  • Apostrophes must be used when contracting words.
  • When apostrophes denote possession they're placed between the final two letters, unless the word already ends in "s", in which case the apostrophe is often, but does not have to be, placed at the end of the word.
  • When apostrophes denote both possession and plurality they're placed after the final "s", unless the word has its own plural form, in which case it only takes on the rule of possession. Note that some words with their own plural form, however, like "cities" and "countries", must have the apostrophe at the end of the word in order to avoid grammatical incorrectness.

Follow those tips and you'll be fine.

Comments

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    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 3 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Great Hub. Much appreciated, but interestingly, "peoples" is not necessarily the plural of "person". Peoples can also refer to groups bound by ethnicity or national traits, et cetera. The Arab Spring could just as easily have been termed the Arab Peoples’ Spring.

      The plural of “person” is “persons” or some of the synonyms as “folks” and “individuals”.

      So “The person’s demeanour gave him away”, or using the plural, “Several person’s (individuals’) clothing indicated that they had been involved in the fracas”.

      May I correct the possessive when applied to James?

      James’ is not correct, as it should be James’s. Only the names of Ancient Greeks, their gods and the like, require only an s’. So Venus’ beauty, Mars’ bellicosity, Aristophanes’ plays.

      And of course, Jesus’ disciples. (Please excuse my starting a sentence with a conjunction.)

      The chap's not a Greek, but the punctuation (although not even invented in his day) follows the form as in the Ancient Greeks's.

    • profile image

      cave76 3 years ago

      I'm going to print that out and keep handy. I use a method of putting apostrophes and commas in that involves writing something then inserting them where they might look cute!! LOL

    • Shil1978 profile image

      Shil1978 3 years ago

      Wonderful guide to apostrophes. See them misused all too often these days. Deserves to be Hub of the Day, well done :)

    • profile image

      zmleung 3 years ago

      I came from a foreign country, in learning English, grammar was one of the first skill I learned besides spelling. Grammar must be taught in every level of education. Is my comment grammatically correct?

    • Everyday Miracles profile image

      Becki Rizzuti 3 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Excellent hub! Congratulations on Hub of the Day! I'm going to be sharing this to my Facebook friends. I think many of the could do with reading it. I recently had an argument with someone about whose and who's. Oops.

    • profile image

      oldpeopleringtone 3 years ago

      That's a helpful idea and also very important thing that I don't know perfectly. So, thanks a lot to share a good topic. Regards

    • profile image

      kjforce 3 years ago

      samwrites21...Thank you for the informative hub...I was going to write a new hub today, but after reading this I decided to re-edit all my now non-published/non-featured ones instead. Hopefully HubPages will see my effort as a positive and re-publish mine again. appreciated the advice.

      Have a great day.

    • profile image

      Ninasvoice 3 years ago

      Great hub, very useful and informative

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Well deserved Hub of the Day! We all need a refresher from time to time on the confusing rules in the English language. Thanks for your clear, easy to follow explanations.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      What a great guide, congrats on earning hub of the day-- you deserve it!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Useful information here. Thanks for the refresher course in apostrophes.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I don't have any trouble with apostrophes, but I thought I'd take a look at your Hub of the Day because I have some ideas for a few grammatical hubs myself.

      I like your layout, especially the use of the shaded, right-flush text, although I probably would use more bullets in my own writing.

      Also, I thought you covered the topic well. Congratulations on your HOD!

      P.S. One aspect I didn't see was apostrophes used in poetry, i.e. e'er, e'en, 'tween, etc. to cut the syllable count. Very thorough, otherwise.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 3 years ago from Georgia

      Congrats on Hub of the Day. Using the correct grammar can certainly be tricky sometimes. Apostrophes and contractions has never been an issue for me, but there are other areas that sometimes get me. Run on sentences, for example. I really have to be careful with them.

      Proofing and editing are crucial even in an era when it seems to sometimes go lacking. Your article will be helpful to many who may not quite grasp proper use of contractions and apostrophes. Incorrectly used, they could change the meaning of a sentence. Writers and others should still be careful, even in the texting age.

      Take care.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Congratulations on Hub Of the Day! It used to unnerve me to see errors using its/its'/it's, but this is so common these days that I've grown accustomed to it. They're/their/there is another one that seems to stump folks. My mother was always a stickler for spelling and grammar (not that I don't have an oopsie here and there myself). Now Gen Z often just drops apsotrophes completely, as they have grown up in a "text me now" age.

      You covered this topic well. It would be awesome to see a quiz so folks could test themselves on whether they know the rules. They may be surprised. Simply have a series of statements and have the reader respond yes/no whether it is correct.

    • Jes Grover profile image

      Jes Grover 3 years ago from East Lee, Massachusetts

      I really only needed this article for the "It's" issue. I did finally figure it out after all these years, but I was never SURE if I was right. Thank you for helping me be sure of myself!

    • Dranea profile image

      Dranea 3 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading this, and it made a lot of sense! I typically write in this way, but I forget why certain things in grammar are the way they are. It was good to refresh my memory!

      I also wanted to mention that I was unaware of how complicated the English language is, until I noticed the many exceptions to the rules of the language!

    • mcbel profile image

      mcbel 3 years ago from New Hampshire

      Great hub. I do believe the American form of English is a bit warped, but hasn't it gained a bit more impact with readers with a its newfound grisliness? If not for diversions from the standards set by grammar police, we'd still be writing in the same nauseating scribe of story telling wizards in ancient Egypt.

      I'm not saying that every text sent by a fifteen year old adolescent with a few sprouting chin-hairs should be relished for its uniqueness and creative use of the English language, but many books published with seemingly 'unconventional' understandings of grammar should be taken for what they are. If the grammar within a work of literature has any impact on the reader, it is because the author's voice is best conveyed in that way. Scoffing at the poor grammar in an author's work is like banging on a noise-canceling window through which you may see an author typing away in some negligible way.

      Grammar is the most grueling stylistic tool in the deep and mysterious toolbox of story telling. Let's call it a wrench

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Great review and reminder for us all. I seem to be drawn to the grammar and writing articles, as well. One would hope that good grammar would be a necessary skill, but appears to be on the wane in today's world.

    • Margo Arrowsmith profile image

      Margo Arrowsmith 3 years ago

      I love these grammar articles. You are a soldier in keeping the language amidst a war against it. I get the apostrophes issue, but there are some that I have to check every time I write, I can remember checking it, but not the answer!

    • word55 profile image

      Word 3 years ago from Chicago

      Excellent hub on grammar. Fortunately I chose English as one of my majors in high school. It paid off very well. It has helped me to deal with lawyers and conduct good business. In college I took Business Law I & II. Great subjects that help in every day operations. Keep up the good work!

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 3 years ago from United States

      Enjoyable hub. I fairly know my grammar and the apostrophe thing. It's funny that I even correct my phone's "auto-correct" feature when texting, especially when there's an apostrophe involved.

      More often than not people deliberately misuse the apostrophe in their sentences just to appear cute. That's a no-no for me.

    • The Stages Of ME profile image

      The Stages Of ME 3 years ago

      Wonderful hub. As grammar is my failpoint I will look forward to more from you. Thanks for sharing and blessings to you :)

    • April Garner profile image

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I enjoyed your discussion of apostrophes. What drives me nuts is the overuse of apostrophes I've witnessed lately, as in "Breakfast Taco's Made Fresh Daily." Do the tacos own some un-named thing?? It seems even in formal signs for stores, people automatically include apostrophes when there's a plural "s" on the end. Incidentally, most of the people I rant about this to don't care and would pay me to stop talking.