Monday, December 14

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, December 14, 2009 8 comments
Apostrophe anxiety in the digital age
Roots of the problem--the demise of gatekeepers

For generations, the humble apostrophe has been quietly helping us keep track of who owns what and acting as a placeholder for omitted letters. Yet more and more I see this little curl popping up where it never belonged: in plural nouns and possessive pronouns. How did this error become so widespread?

I think it is fair to blame the democratization of design and publication. Prior to the digital age, we had a layer of gatekeepers--sign shops, publishing companies, well-trained secretaries--whose reputations depended upon accuracy. They made sure errors never hit the public eye. Now that anyone with a computer can create documents and signage, the gatekeepers that would have caught and repaired errors are largely bypassed.

The digital age also encourages reliance on technology over human knowledge. Many times spell check won't help you use apostrophes correctly, however; who's might be a correct spelling, but it doesn't mean the same thing as whose. Grammar checkers will flag similar sound-alike errors sometimes. But even these tools will get hung up on unusual plurals, such as the one in An Abundance of Katherines.

Finally, I blame Dan Quayle's very public gaffe in 1992--insisting at a spelling bee that potato is spelled potatoe--for creating heightened anxiety about spelling rules for words ending in vowel sounds. Slapping on an apostrophe has become the strange default. (I imagine the inner monologue goes like this: "Is it tacos or tacoes? Oh, heck, I'll just write taco's, everyone will understand.") Words ending in Y trip folks up, too. While pony becomes ponies and contingency becomes contingencies, joy does not become joies, but joys. Apostrophes seem to act as duct tape when these anxieties surface--a good-enough quick fix for those in a hurry. My advice for handling thus particular anxiety: When in doubt, look it up. Merriam-Webster online has an easy-to-use interface.

Thanks for bearing with my analytical rant. Here's the goods you really came for: a reliable guide to using, not abusing, our humble friend the apostrophe.

Mine! Mine!
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.

John's box
Yeats's poems
Inez's marimba
Children's menu
Men's restroom

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 s, sh, ch, x or z take an es when made plural. Some examples are below.

Girls' first win
Grants' party
O'Reillys' bar
Collinses' house

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

Oddball plurals
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.

**A brief disclaimer
I am not a grammarian. I'm just a workaday editor with degrees in English and journalism who has been copy editing professionally since 1991. All the advice I give above came from reliable grammar manuals. If you think I got it wrong at any point, please let me know in the comments or at lonexylophone (at) yahoo (dot) com.


  1. Thanks for clearing this up!

    With a last name like Strauss, I've seen all kinds of confusion when it comes to possessive apostrophe. It took me several years after getting married to figure it out myself. Strauss's house or Strauss' house, that belongs to the Strausses, the Strausses are coming over....I mean, look at all those essess!

    I fall victim to the masqueraders, too. (now what about that comma before 'too'? I was taught it belongs there, but more often now, I'm seeing it eliminated.)

    I not a grammarian either, I'm just trying to tackle the mysteries of the English language.

  2. An excellent and very useful post, Laurel. can I print this and adapt it as an at-a-glance handout for my comp. kids? :)

  3. Im sure youve seen the vitriolic sign photo thats been going round the blogosphere with all the apostrophe's in place's where there should just be plural's. I mean, if youre going to hate on people, at least puncua'te correctly, huh?

    Oh... here it is:

  4. This sort of stuff annoys the hell outta me too! Also, I find correct grammar exceedingly fulfiling. I know, total nerd ;)

  5. Elle: Have you reconciled with inviting friends to the Strausses' house? I think Joneses' looks stranger...the double s before the es has a less redundant feel.

    Shannon: Be my guest. My examples are a bit dull, though. Swap out my boring menus, boxes, houses and the like for some zombies, llamas and Survivor contestants, and the ideas will stick.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Simon: Groan. In a certain subculture, being poorly educated is next to godliness.

    Rhiannon: I have to restrain myself from going around town with a big sharpie and marking these errors with a delete squiggle and horizontal close-up brackets. Then I remember that almost no one knows how to read proofreaders' marks these days.

  8. I just edited a piece on Wallace Stevens yesterday, and Word kept flagging Stevens's as a misspelling. However, MLA 7th edition is explicit that ALL SINGULAR subjects take the apostrophe and S when made possessive (see section 3.2.7e). MLA uses Venus's and Dickens's as their examples.