Writing Tips: How To Use Apostrophes
Many people use apostrophes without quite knowing where they should go. I'm here to help you become a better writer, and the poor, abused apostrophe seemed the best place to begin.
The apostrophe may well be the most abused punctuation mark in the English language, and is admittedly a constant irritant for Grammar Nazis like myself. You should have seen the shocked disbelief on my face during my first stopover at London's Heathrow airport.
"Ahhh, England," I thought. "The birthplace of the English language, the bastion of proper English grammar, the most wonderful place in the world to.." And then I saw it. I had just been herded onto a bus that would take me to my terminal. I ended up standing in front of one of the doorways. When the glass door closed, this is what I saw emblazoned there for all to see:
"Do Not Leave Bag's In Front Of Door"
I just about had a heart attack! Actually, considering the shock, I remained fairly calm (at least on the surface.) I nonchalantly glanced around to see if anyone else noticed this grammatical faux pas. Nope! Nobody but me seemed to care that even here, is this grammatical mecca, the poor apostrophe was being mercilessly abused!
What Not To Use Apostrophes For
The number one culprit, and therefore the number one rule of apostrophe use is to never use an apostrophe to pluralize a word. The plural of any word in the English language is accomplished by simply adding an "s." Really, everyone is making it way more complicated than it is!
- The 1980s rocked.
- I got some new DVDs.
- The Joneses are coming over.
- All kids are invited to the party.
- How many "i"s are in the word Mississippi?
- Sale on watermelons, peaches, and apples.
- The 1980's rocked.
- I got some new DVD's.
- The Jones's are coming over.
- All kid's are invited to the party.
- How many i's are in the word Mississippi?
- Sale on watermelon's, peache's, and apple's.
- Some would argue that to make a single letter plural you should add an apostrophe. However, this is incorrect. The accepted method is to put a quotation mark around the letter as shown above.
- To make someone's last name plural that already ends in "s," add an "es" on the end: The Joneses, The Adamses, etc.
Contractions And Omissions
Now that we know not to put an apostrophe into the word "contractions," let's learn about how to use apostrophes to indicate where missing letters should be.
A contraction is nothing more than the combination of two words into one. When writing a scientific paper, we don't use contractions--they're shortcuts in language that have developed through speech. Here are some examples of contractions (on the left is the contraction, on the right are the two words it represents):
- Can't.......Can not
- They'd....They would
- They'll.....They will
- You're......You are
- Isn't..........Is not
- We're.......We are
- She's........She is
- She's........She has
- Who's.......Who is
Apostrophes are also used when you omit (get rid of) a letter:
- I'm lovin' it
- O'er the fields
- Happily e'er after
I learned about possession the hard way. When I was about 8 years old I entered my first (and last) spelling bee. I practiced spelling all kinds of big words for weeks on end, and when the day came I was totally thrilled out of my mind (I was an English nerd even back then!)
Well, it was down to me and two other kids and I was flying high--until they threw a wrench into my carefully planned shellacking. "How do you spell the word dogs in this sentence," they asked: "The two dogs' bones." It just didn't seem right for them to ask me such a stupid question. I had no freaking idea! Well, from that day on I decided to conquer the beastly possessive apostrophe, get to know it, and make it learn who's master!
The rule of thumb is if you're talking about one thing, put the apostrophe after the one thing. If you're talking about plural things, put the apostrophe after the plural things. Single (one brother): My brother's room is a mess. Plural (two brothers): The brothers' fighting needs to stop. Another way to visualize this is to say it differently to yourself. Single: My brother, his room is a mess. Plural: The brothers, they need to stop fighting.
- If Kate has two apples, they are Kate's apples.
- My brother has two computers; they are my brother's computers.
- If both of the kids own laptops, they are the kids' laptops.
- My students are getting good grades; the students' grades are good.
- If a word is already plural (children), treat it as a single word: The children's coats were all muddy!
- If a last name ends in "s," add an apostrophe after their name to show possession: The Jones' dog ran away. That's the standard, but the following is also accepted: The Jones's dog ran away. Whichever method you choose, be consistent.
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Wait.. It's A Trap!
There's a difference between its and it's. By now hopefully you can at least vaguely identify how they're used. Basically the only time we use an apostrophe with this word is when--did you guess it?--there is a contraction (combining two words into one.) Just to make sure, let's look at a few examples:
- That sound? It's just the cat clawing its scratching post. Wait; that's the couch!
- Holy mackerel, it's time to end this apostrophe lesson! Its time has come.
- It's been fun!