Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Mighty Apostrophe

fter a week off, that ended up being two, I am back; and I'm about to make up for them both over here in the grammar department by tackling a punctuation topic that is always a major source of confusion: the apostrophe. The most mistakes that see in writing, other than commas, are usually in relation to the poor little apostrophe: the one who get's thrown into everything he shouldn't and left out of everything he should be levitating proudly over.

There is so much detail this week so I have color coded in an attempt to simplify: rules are in coral; notes or special points are in seafoam; examples are bulleted.

There are three main ways apostrophes are used:

{ to create contractions }
{ to show possession }
{ to create some plural forms }

Use an apostrophe where letters are omitted to create a contraction.
  • there's = there is or there has
  • can't = cannot
  • won't = will not
  • she'll = she will
  • he's = he is or he has
  • I'm = I am
  • Hilly's = Hilly is or Hilly has
  • Skeeter's = Skeeter is or Skeeter has
  • he'd = he would or he could
  • y'all = you all

Sometimes there's is a mix-up as to where the apostrophe should go in y'all; just remember that most of the time (You know how there aren't many absolutes in English grammar.) it goes where letter(s) is/are omitted, so in y'all it is replacing the ou in you all.

However, the main contraction issue I see is this:

  • {1a} Its the best day of my life.
  • {2a} The dolphin dove over the wave showing it's fin.

Pretty much the rule is opposite:
its = possessive
it's = contraction for it is

  • {1b} It's the best day of my life.
  • {2b} The dolphin dove over the wave showing its fin.

Next to it's/its, the most common issue, hands-down, is possessives for this simple reason: awkwardness.
If something sounds awkward we automatically assume that it is incorrect. Well, I hate to say it; but in this case, you can't trust your awkward instinct.

{ The Rule: If the word is singular, you add an -'s. }
  • Mrs. White's cake was perfect.
  • Lanie's hat was a bit too much for her outfit.
  • Thomas's truck is covered in mud!
  • Davis's haircut left him bald!
  • Mr. Jones's lawnmower ran over Mr. Williams's weed eater.
Here is an interesting note for you word geeks: I received a call from an attorney in my mom's law firm not too long ago. He wanted to know the possessive form of executrix. (Executrix is the feminine of executor in reference to an estate or will.) He thought that executrix's sounded awkward and cumbersome; it does. However, it's correct.

Now, when forming the possession of a singular noun that ends in -s or with the s sound, add only an apostrophe if the noun has two or more syllables and if the addition of ‘s will make the noun
awkward to pronounce.
  • Samuel Clemens’ pen name was Mark Twain.
  • For goodness’ sake, Tootie, try to behave!
  • For appearance’ sake, I will wear a suit to court.

~ I realize that sounds completely contradictory, but such is the world of English grammar. ~

Here's another random exception:

Add just an apostrophe when using the singular possessive form of classical and Biblical names ending in -s.

  • Jesus’ disciples carried out his teachings.
  • Achilles’ battles are recorded in the Iliad.

~ Now, back to your comfort zone where you knew you were right. ~

Add an apostrophe to show the possessive case of plural nouns ending in -es or -s.
  • The boys’ T-shirts need washing.
  • The Joneses’ house is being renovated.
  • The trees’ leaves are turning colors.
  • The Greens’ barbecue is tomorrow.

Add an apostrophe and an -s to show the possessive case of plural nouns that DO NOT end in -es or -s.
  • The children’s toys are in the bedroom.
  • They found the mice’s tunnels.
  • The women’s tournament is today.
  • The oxen’s harnesses are too tight.

Add an apostrophe and an s (or just an apostrophe if the word is a plural ending in -s) to the last word of a compound noun to form the possessive case.
  • He bought some Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder.
  • The Red Cross’s need for blood is imminent.
  • My father-in-law’s ranch is in Wyoming.
  • King Henry VIII’s fourth wife was from Germany.
  • Both my brothers-in-law's last names are Taylor.
  • McKinley High School’s mascot is the titan.
  • I want to eat at Johnson and Sons' Ranch House tonight.

Now, when you are talking about joint possession here's how it works:
  • Jim and Pam's house (They have joint ownership of the house.)
  • Regis and Kelly's talk show (They share the show.)
  • Ryan's and Kelly's dogs (They each have their own dog.)
  • Mac's and PC's operating systems (They each have their own operating systems.)

{ Randomness }
My, his, hers, theirs, ours, yours, etc. never need apostrophes because they are already possessive.

Indefinite pronouns always need an 's to become possessive because they are considered singular.
*Indefinite pronouns = anyone, anybody, anything, no one, someone, something, somebody, anything, anyone, another, etc.

{ Years }
Place the apostrophe where the missing numbers would go.
  • The class of '99 is having a reunion.
  • I will graduate from design school in May '12.

Note: Do not use this form for academic or professional writing; use the form below.

{ Dates/Decades }
Surprise! You can go either way!
  • She was born in the 1980s.
  • She was born in the 1980's.

{ Numbers, Symbols, Letters, and Words }
Use an apostrophe and an s to write the plurals of numbers, symbols, letters, and words used to name themselves:
  • Cross your t’s and dots your i’s.
  • You have too many and’s in this sentence.
  • There are two o’s in the word choose.
  • Are those 5's or 6's?

Here is something else: you may add only an s to the form the plurals of uppercase letters if the plural forms cannot be misread.
  • Most of his grades this term are Bs.
Note: Whatever you decide to do, be sure to use the apostrophe consistently.
  • Most of his grades in high school were A’s and B’s.

To form the plurals of abbreviations followed by periods, add ‘s .
  • Dwight has two Ph. D.'s!

To form the plurals of abbreviations NOT followed by periods, add either ‘s or s.
  • He bought five new CD’s. He bought five new CDs.

I hope this helped you with any questions that you may have had about apostrophes. 
If you have any lingering questions, feel free to shoot me a message anytime. 

***Shout Outs***

June Freaking Cleaver: She requested that I cover this topic - check her out!

I'll let you know if I gave you a "Shout Out to Check Out," then you can post the button to your blog...if you want.

And, yes, that is MY mouth in the button. =)



  1. Awww... the poor misused apostrophe! Finally, someone is giving it some justice! You should include the link to the Apostrophe Protection Society on here somewhere. (There's a theme song and everything!)

  2. Bethany,
    I just wanted to let you know that you forgot a very important fact about the poor little apostrophe . . . Did you know that it is also called a "common to the top" here in N.O.? :) Laughed my head off the first time I heard that. I just thought you would want to store that in your "apostrophe knowledge" bank - esp. since you visit frequently!