A Way With Words: Apostrophe Angst

A Way With Words: Apostrophe Angst
December 29, 2015 No Comments » Writing Tara R

The humble apostrophe is often abused, or ignored. Misuse of this simple punctuation mark inevitably ranks high on many writing “pet peeve” lists. Just because a word ends with an s doesn’t automatically imply that there will also be an apostrophe included. All of the uncertainty over the proper use of a little accent mark can cause a great amount of angst. Hopefully, we can clear up some of that confusion.

The purpose of an apostrophe is three-fold:

  • possession
  • omission
  • clarification

Possession:

A singular noun such as, car, train, or girl, can be transformed into a possessive word by inserting an apostrophe at the end of the word, followed by an s.

That is unless the noun already ends with an s, such as lens, jeans, or class, then the apostrophe is inserted at the end of the word, as if it were plural.

Incorrect: jean’s, len’s, clas’s
Correct: jeans’, lens’, class’

Plural possessive:

With nouns that end in s, to make them plural possessive, add es at the end of the word, then either a single apostrophe, or an apostrophe and an s.

Classes’ / classes’s (either is correct)
Lens’ / lenses’ / lenses’s (each is correct)

With a plural noun, the apostrophe is inserted after the added s.

Cars’
Trains’
Girls’

For plural proper nouns ending in s, like Jones or Roberts, add either ’s or es’s. Either is correct, just pick one usage and stick with it.

Joneses’ or Joneses’s
Robertses’ or Robertes’s

Compound possessive words:

With words like sister-in-law or mother-in-law, the s is added after the first word depending on whether the word is singular or plural, then the apostrophe is inserted after the last word, along with an added s.

Sister-in-law’s
Sisters-in-law’s
Mother-in-law’s
Mothers-in-law’s

Shared possession:

When a sentence includes a single shared possession, an apostrophe is only added to the last noun in the series.

Mike and John’s dogs (multiple dogs owned by Mike and John)

If the shared possession refers to separate items owned by different subjects, then each noun includes an apostrophe and an s.

Mike’s and John’s dogs (separate dogs owned by Mike and John)

Omission:

For dates, the apostrophe goes at the beginning to indicate dropping the 18, 19, or 20, etc:

’72’67’93

If you refer to a decade, add an apostrophe and s at the end:

70’s60’s90’s

Do not use both – ’72’s is incorrect.

Apostrophes also indicates that a word is a contraction, and a letter or letters, have been omitted.

Can’t – cannot
Don’t – do not
Heav’n – heaven
Y’all – you all
O’er – over

Clarification:

Single numbers and letters include an apostrophe:

a’s, r’s, t’s
5’s, 7’s, 8’s.

When creating the plural of a word that is normally not a noun:

do’s and don’ts
pro’s and con’s

Only add a single apostrophe. You would’t write “don’t’s

Also include an apostrophe for abbreviations:

Ph.D.’s
M.D.’s
M.B.A.’s

Examples of how the meaning of the same sentence can change meaning depending on where an apostrophe is added.

The tutor’s student’s notebooks are covered in stickers.

[A tutor has a student with notebooks covered in stickers.]

The tutor’s students’ notebooks are covered in stickers.

[A tutor has several students with notebooks covered in stickers.]

The tutors’ students’ notebooks are covered in stickers.

[Several tutors have several students with notebooks covered in stickers.]

Now, go out there and show those apostrophes who’s boss!

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Tara R Tara Roberts (pronounced Tar-ah and with a southern drawl) lives and plays on the Florida Gulf Coast. A former print news and online media reporter, she now spends her days roaming the woods and beaches of the Panhandle talking to herself, penning eclectic fiction, and taking photographs. She can be found most days at “Thin spiral notebook” trying to quiet the voices in her head.

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