I love punctuation—all those small, inconspicuous dots and squiggles that shape and give structure to written language. The period tells us when one thought ends and another begins; the comma and semicolon tell us when to pause, briefly or for longer; the colon tells us that the full meaning will follow; and quotation marks tell us when someone is speaking. The octothorpe—a new term I just learned—is multi-talented, and can mean number, pound, or hashtag. But the much-abused apostrophe—that humble little mark that floats above its target word like a royal wave—seems to cause more confusion than any other.
Although I wrote about this topic way back in 2009, by popular demand I am revisiting it. Unfortunately, the problem has gotten no better, and has probably gotten worse, in the intervening years.
Before he retired, Gene Weingarten commented in his Washington Post “Below the Beltway” column, “Few errors of punctuation so succinctly reveal the utter illiteracy of the perpetrators. The sins have been escalating of late, metastasized by the so-called spontaneity of social media” (1/17/20). This might seem harsh, but Weingarten doesn’t shrink from calling a spade a spade. Others agree. “Erroneous use of this punctuation mark is endemic,” declares dailywritingtips.com. The problem is exacerbated by autocorrect and voice recognition, which seem to add apostrophes indiscriminately to every word that ends in s! So, if I were to dictate, “the ants go marching,” my device would type, “the ant’s go marching,” which implies that the ant owns a go, which is marching. Why can’t AI take care of this? This is why I always proofread carefully!
The word apostrophe comes from the Greek apóstrophos, meaning turned away or elision, or missing element. There are really only two linguistic situations in which an ending -s should be preceded by an apostrophe: possessives and omitted letters, such as contractions.
To indicate possession. An apostrophe + s is placed after a noun to show that the noun owns something. Jane’s coat, the dog’s leash, or the garden’s abundance are examples. When the noun is plural, the apostrophe is placed after the s, as in “the dogs’ leashes” or “her parents’ car.” You may be invited to the Thompsons’ house, but not the Thompson’s house—unless a person named Thompson, rather than the Thompson family, owns the house. Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, the apostrophe was originally used in English only for contractions, whereas –es was used to indicate possession—as in Williames coat or Laurenes book. The apostrophe was sometimes used to replace that e, and over time became the preferred way to indicate possession: William’s coat or Lauren’s book.
To indicate a missing letter, as in a contraction such as she’d for she would or y’all for you all. Thus “I cannot believe you would not go swimming” becomes “I can’t believe you wouldn’t go swimming,” with the apostrophe replacing the missing o in both nots. In “I’m not sure why you’re so tall,” the apostrophe replaces the missing a in both am and are. A wonderful British example is fo’c’s’le, the nickname of the forecastle, or forward section of a ship. This omission replacement also applies to dates, so you would write “disco was a popular dance style in the ’80s,” or “the roaring ‘20s are also known as the Jazz Age.” Similarly, if you drop a letter from a word, replace it with an apostrophe—as in “Singin’ in the Rain” or ’Twas the Night before Christmas.
Yet as straightforward as these rules may seem, many people have trouble remembering them. If you can follow these two simple guidelines you will be okay, because they cover the majority of cases where you need to use an apostrophe. The source of most usage errors is that an apostrophe is NEVER USED TO INDICATE A PLURAL. Plural nouns simply add an s without an apostrophe. So I hope you noticed that my headline is wrong! When deciding whether to insert an apostrophe, simply ask yourself: do my words express ownership? Then it’s a yes. Do they involve a contraction, with letters omitted? Then it’s a yes. Do they involve a simple plural? Then it’s a big NO to the apostrophe!
If a sign reads “No Dog’s Allowed” or “Open Sunday’s,” I reach for my can of spray paint. Do they perhaps mean no allowed’s owned by dogs? And does Sunday own a restaurant—or a box, or a door— that we are being told to open? The real-life examples are everywhere. “Come in and try our coffee’s, tea’s, and cake’s,” one sign reads. Do they mean try our coffee’s flavor? Cake’s sweetness? “Alway’s be yourself” is simply preposterous. A protestor’s sign that reads “Mother’s demand action” should really read, “Mothers against good grammar!” Of course, errors are also sometimes made in the other direction: “Doctors Surgery” implies many doctors, in which case it should read “Doctors’ Surgery.” Or consider the double whammy, “Bobs Cars and Taxi’s.” Bob is really confused! I decline the offer of “Your’e Chance to Shine” or “Bonnie’’s Diner”—or, worst of all, “its’ okay”!
In addition, possessive pronouns—such as ours, yours, theirs, and its—do not use apostrophes. Its (meaning belonging to it) is especially prone to error, because it often gets confused with it’s, meaning “it is.” “To go from billiards to air hockey, first secure the air hockey power cord inside it’s cubby,” said my house instructions—incorrectly—on Airbnb. So don’t use an apostrophe with it unless you mean it is. I know, the logic seems a bit arcane, but rules are rules! If you want to avoid sounding ignorant, I recommend you learn to follow them.
One usage that seems to be changing (or, to put it nicely, evolving) is the use of apostrophes with the plurals of numbers, letters, dates, and acronyms. These traditionally do not require an apostrophe. “I’m selling all my CDs” and “She received all As and Bs on her report card” are correct. However, inserting one has become so ubiquitous that it is now accepted as correct. Although the AP Stylebook, New York Times, Grammar Girl, and dailywritingtips.com still abjure it, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines apostrophe as “a mark” used to indicate the omission of letters or figures, the possessive case (as in “John’s book”), or the plural of letters or figures (as in “the 1960’s”). Grammarly.com (and others) now recommend “don’t forget to dot your i’s” and “I grew up in the1950’s.” E.B. White must be turning over in his grave. In this matter, you’re on your own!
As we’ve learned, the apostrophe indicates possession or a missing letter—nothing more, nothing less. Using this punctuation mark correctly avoids confusion and preserves meaning. The Apostrophe Protection Society is devoted to chronicling and correcting the widespread abuse of this poor little punctuation mark. Their website features many photographs of actual signs found in the wild (some used here), plus a shop of useful apostrophe-defending merchandise (apostrophe.org.uk). I hope you will try to avoid these common mistakes.