Thursday, February 24

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 24, 2011 28 comments
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.

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

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

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

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.

Which of these areas trip you up most?

*this is a revised post from 2009.


  1. I'd say last names that end with s, but I'm pretty good with the others. Great post.

  2. I though the apostrophe with names ending in “s” was a judgment call. As in, both "O'Reillys'" and "O'Reillys's" would be correct technically.

    The husband and I have birthdays four days apart so one year my dad got us a cake and thought it would be cute to have "Happy Birthdays Shawn & Lisa" written on it. Instead, the decorator wrote:

    Happy Birthday's
    Shawn & Lisa

    I almost collapsed when he brought it out! Luckily, we just plucked the apostrophe off with a knife and I was able to breathe again.

  3. I am usually pretty compulsive about this, but I always struggle with plurals of abbreviations (CPAs). Sometimes I put the apostrophe in, sometimes I don't. Actually, it really annoys me, because I keep finding opposing viewpoints on what is right. I am glad to see that the general consensus is moving away from the apostrophe, it always looks awkward.

  4. I think people must get excited or something and just want to throw some punctuation mark in, so ... I know! An apostrophe! LOL--I know you've read "Eats Shots and Leaves." Punctuation can be so hilarious. Or am I just a nerd?

    good one, Laurel~ <3

  5. I get tripped up on the "..."s. I use them all the time. I just love them on my blog. I guess...I should use them less often. =)

  6. Laura: Names ending in S, especially when you need a plural possesive, is where the correct thing can look quite strange.

    Lisa: The only judgment call in names ending in S is whether they qualify as coming from ancient Greek--so singluar possesives of names like Jesus and Pythagoras don't take an S after the apostrophe. MLA is pretty adamant that singular subjects take an 's (except for some Greek names) no matter what letter the word ends with. This is so it's clear you have a singular subject.

    Plural possesives only take the additional S after the apostrophe if the plural is not an S-formed plural (deer, mice, women, geese and the like). O'Reillys's would never be correct. The plural possesive of O'Reilly is O'Reillys' and of, say, Ross would be Rosses'. Plural first, then possessive is the rule.

    Anaquinn: The style guides don't always agree. The trick is to choose one and stick to it. But I agree that apostophe minimalism looks better.

  7. I have a major its/it's problem. I will just keep repeating it is/it was/it has over and over again.

  8. Leigh: I think the misuse of apostrophes in plurals (you know when someone writes "plural's") is largely poor reinforcement. You see billboards with gaffes and suddently you question correct usage.

    Carolyn: I hope this helped clarify for you that apostrophes generally aren't used to make plural forms of words.

  9. Melissa: I always find it helpful to remember that pronouns are like sneaky thieves who take possession without announcing it in punctuation.

  10. It could be worse. Trying to sort this stuff out in Latin (separate genative endings) is incredibly annoying.

    I also think that people able to produce certificates stating that they are qualified greengrocer's (yes, I know) should be exempt.

  11. My biggest trip-up is the plural of names ending in s. (i.e. We're driving in the Joneses' car.) It may be correct, but, man, it's wonky. And auto-correct agrees with me.

  12. Thank you so much for this post. I am decent with apostrophes, except in the last case with oddball plurals. Now I'm certain to omit all those apostrophes!

  13. Thank you, Laurel. In your kind, funny way, you have cured me of my apostrophe abuse, and I shall try to punctuate correctly from now on ;)

  14. Thanks for this refresher course, Laurel. We both know I need it! :)

  15. Names definitely mess me up. Thanks for the clarification. I need it for my WIP . . . character name: Thomas. It's Thomas's story. :)

  16. The names mess me up. Thanks for the recap. I'm going to bookmark this. Thanks.

  17. Oh wow, this is great. I seem to forget it's/its a lot for some reason. Seems simple, but sometimes I get a little tripped up.

  18. Stu: Alas, when even certificates are produced with errors, is it any wonder society as a whole struggles to get apostrophes right?

    Karen: They sure do look wonky, which is why I'd suggested avoiding names that require an additonal "es" to pluralize.

    Emy: Glad it was helpful. The oddball plurals are in flux, but yes, apsotrophe minimalism seems to be the trend. Delete at will!

  19. Roxy: Aw, shucks, I'm blushing. Glad this post sounded kind and funny. No one learns well in an environment of put-downs, right?

    Elle: Apostrophe confusion is VERY widespread. Like I'd said, three crits I'd done had this issue. I'm glad the refresher is helpful.

    Janet: Thomas's story, YES! It takes some getting used to, and the bozos who created Word spell check will fight you. Just left click it, and select "add to dictionary."

  20. Christine: Word spell check will fight you on adding an 's to s-ending names, I've found. The folks who created spell check haven't talked to grammarians, apparently. It's really a clarity issue--so the reader knows whether the possessor is singular ('s) or plural (s').

    Abby: As I'd said to Melissa, think of pronouns as sneaky thieves. When they take possession of something, the don't announce it with punctuation.

  21. THANK YOU! I always mess this stuff up- specifically plural nouns ending in s. I will be copying this post and putting it in my "writing tips" folder!

  22. Very helpful post. I didn't know a lot of these rules technically, I just know them by "feel" - but I didn't know that Sanchez's house should actually be Sanchezes' house! Thanks! Loved your post on bilocation and can words dance, too. Technology w/writing seems to have an ever expanding horizon! I get giddy thinking about an e-reader that just doesn't let you link to a dictionary to see instant definitions, but that could also link to a special website set up to enhance the historical aspects of a historical novel, for instance - so you could link to historical photos and articles and more background information if you wanted to!

  23. I do get irked by the it's and its confusion and recently I've seen more and more of the who's trying to be whose.

    I've never learned about using apostrophes for making numbers and letters plural and have always used the 3s and Ms. Glad the style is swinging that way.

  24. Kelly: Glad to be of help. I think a lot of folks aren't sure how to talk about something that belongs to a whole family: you need to make a plural of the name then smack an apostrophe on the back. Your family lives in the Lymans' house, for example. Just remember, plural first, then possessive. :-)

    Margo: Your first example is correct for one Sanchez who lives alone. The second is plural, for a group of Sanchezes sharing a house. Make sense?

    I, too, am excited by enhanced e-books, especially if it could mean deeper reading experiences and more paying gigs for talented illustrators. YA and adult books don't have pictures largely because of the printing cost, which isn't an issue on an e-reader.

    Y2: Apostrophes keeping making unnecessary appearances, don't they? I joke that pronouns are sneaky thieves that take possession with out announcing it with punctuation.

    I think the oddball plural rule is dying out because it causes confusion with simpler plurals. I've seen so many billboards with mistakes, I'm glad too.

  25. You've got some terrific stuff here, Laurel! And I'll confess, I always doubt myself when dealing with ownership of plural nouns ending in "s." But I'm feeling pretty good that I knew all about the hip new "oddball apostrophe" trend. ;o) Thanks so much for your concise summary.

  26. Hi Laurel -

    The last item threw my neat, grammar rules out of kilter. No apostrophe with numbers? Only one space after a period, and now this!

    Susan :)

  27. Apostrophe abuse is also one of my pet peeves when it comes to writing.

    Imagine passing a shop window and seeing: Cucumber's! Melon's! Tomato's!

    Oh how I cringe.

    "Its" and "it's" is another grammar bug that has bitten a lot of writers.

    And don't even get me started on "your" when the writer means to imply "you're."


    Nice blog you have!

  28. Great post! But I was caught off guard by the singular possessive ending in "s". Most rules I've read say that both ways are correct-- so Hammons possessive could be Hammons' or Hammons's. I think Hammons's is preferred, but Hammons' is not incorrect.

    I had to rush to read this post because I am a grammar geek! Not that I never make mistakes, of course. I did appreciate learning the preferred method, so thank you! :)