Apostrophes remain the most abused punctuation out there. I see them misused on billboards and shop window signs, in manuscripts I critique and blogs I stalk. After critiquing three manuscripts with apostrophe issues, I thought I should revisit the issue.
My number one take away message:
If you don't know how to form the plural of a word, LOOK IT UP.
Don't use an apostrophe unless the dictionary or a style guide says to do so. Got it?
Thank you. I feel much better now. Now, onto when and how you should use apostrophes.
Apostrophes and possessives
To indicate ownership, add an apostrophe and s to singular nouns (no matter what the ending consonant) and plurals that don't end in s. Some examples are below.
With plural nouns ending in s, indicate ownership by adding an apostrophe alone. Be sure that the plural is correctly formed first. (When in doubt, look it up.) Errors creep in with names especially. Names ending in y simply take an s. Names ending with ch, s, sh, x or z take an es when made plural. Some examples are below.
Girls' first win
Note: If you struggle with apostrophes, avoid giving characters first names ending in s (like Alexis or Joss) or last names ending in s, sh, ch, x or z (like Robbins, Koch, Leax, Sanchez). You'll eliminate many headaches and confusion for yourself.
Beware the masqueraders!
PROnouns, those handy stand-in words that keep us from sounding incredibly redundant, do not use apostrophes in their possessive forms. Some examples are below.
She had her cat spayed. That tabby is hers.
They drove me in their car. Yes, the Audi is theirs.
You want me to come to your house? Which one is yours?
Who left this here? Whose magazine is this?
Pronouns take apostrophes only when forming contractions (more on this below). NO EXCEPTIONS. If you see who's, it means "who is" or "who has" or "who was." It's means "it is" or "it has" or "it was."
Bridging the gaps
Omitted letters and contractions
Apostrophes play another important role: as a placeholder. They stand in for omitted letters in a single word or combined words (a.k.a. contractions). Some examples are below.
Ma'am = madam
'cause = because
don't = do not
could've = could have
who's = who is / who was / who has
they're = they are / they were
a soon-to-be extinct exception
It was once the rule that numbers, letters, abbreviations and acronyms always took an apostrophe and s in their plural forms. For example: In the 1940's, C.P.A.'s minded their P's and Q's. This "rule" is currently in flux and appears to be headed for extinction.
Most of the newest style manuals have eliminated this practice. MLA 7th edition section 3.2.7g says "Do not use an apostrophe to form the plural of an abbreviation or a number." The Associated Press applies the oddball apostrophe plural rule only to single letters (for example, M's), while numbers and abbreviations/acronyms go without the curl.
The trend seems to be apostrophe minimalism. So go ahead and write it like this: "In the 1940s, CPAs minded their Ps and Qs." The Modern Language Association will back you all the way.
Which of these areas trip you up most?
*this is a revised post from 2009.