A is for Apostrophe!

A Apostrophes pretty much have two uses: making a contraction or making a possessive. Possessive apostrophes are the ones I see misused the most, so they’ll be the ones we look at in this post.

When do you use it?

The classic Elements of Style (better known as Strunk & White) starts off with this advice: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.” Yes, even for singular nouns ending in s.

You also use an ‘s with a plural noun that does not end in s. Example: men’s room, women’s room. Plural nouns that end in s just get an apostrophe to the end of the word. Example: kids’ rooms. (Yes, I’m feeling particularly creative with these examples.)

But it is singular, and it’s isn’t the possessive!

Yes, that’s right. Possessive pronouns like his, hers, its, yours, ours, and theirs do not use apostrophes.

It’s = it is. If you’re unsure of which one you’re supposed to use, read your sentence aloud and replace it’s with it is. If it sounds right, you use it’s. If not, you’ll use its.

What about proper singular nouns that end in s? Don’t you just use only an apostrophe then?

The AP Stylebook (at least the version I have, published in 2002) is where I find the rule that singular proper nouns ending in s should get the apostrophe-only treatment.

However, Strunk & White disagree (see above), as does Roy Peter Clark, author of The Glamour of Grammar, though both allow that there are exceptions.

Clark advises you to “let your ear help govern the possessive apostrophe.” He says to use ‘s for all singular nouns that end in s, but listen to the words to gauge whether it’s an exception to that rule:

There are classic examples when adding an s gives you that Velcro feeling: I would not say Achilles’s heel. Achilles’ will do fine, thank you, with the prepositional phrase a convenient escape hatch: the teachings of Socrates.

However, Clark also says that generally, most proper singular nouns sound right with the ‘s added, like using “James’s book” instead of “James’ book,” despite what the AP Stylebook says:

The [AP] stylebook justifies the missing s based on the value of ‘consistency and ease in remembering a rule.’ To which I respond: What about the needs and experiences of the reader?

Most language experts advise writers to ignore restrictions that require you to write or say something awkward or ugly, especially something that offends the ear. In this case, let us match punctuation to speech. As long as the snake isn’t swallowing its tongue, let the reptile hiss.

On a final note:

Apostrophes do not make plurals. Apostrophes do not make plurals. APOSTROPHES DO NOT MAKE PLURALS.

The only exception to that rule I’ve ever seen has been when discussing the plural of a single letter, where not using an apostrophe could cause confusion. Example: “She had all A’s on her report card.” versus “She had all As on her report card.”

Other than that? Apostrophes do not make plurals.

All are Amazon links (though not affiliate links).
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
The Associated Press Stylebook
The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark


25 thoughts on “A is for Apostrophe!

  1. Thank you so much for making this your first April entry! It’s the smallest of grammatical errors, but I see it so often that it makes me twitch. Spread the word, my friend! Spread the word!

    • Oh, I shall. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment! I see it a lot too; in fact, there’s a drawing on a chalkboard at one of my favorite restaurants that says “fresh veggie’s” on it. I twitch EVERY TIME I see it.

  2. I am terrible with things like this I just use any old thing that comes to mind and tend to go . . . . . . . . . a lot . . . . then folk do realise I dont know what I’m doing.

    Good luck with the Alphabet I will be back. . . . . . .

    Rob Z Tobor

  3. I love this!! It really is a good idea to get a refresher! For SURE!! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through my drafts and seen “it’s” and “its” used incorrectly. We know how to use it right, but it’s almost invisible now! Oy!

    • That one IS hard. The trick I mentioned up there about replacing “it’s” or “its” with “it is” to see which one is correct? I use it EVERY TIME I come to that word in a document. It’s the only way I remember. πŸ™‚ (And yes, I used said trick when typing the previous sentence.)

      And thank you; I’m glad it helped!

  4. “APOSTROPHES DO NOT MAKE PLURALS.” That’s the most important sentence in the whole post. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I even see it in professional publications and advertising now. Where are the editors?

  5. Another frequent punctuation error with apostrophes I see is with years. Like, someone referring to “the ’90s.” So many people (*cough my boss cough*) write “the 90’s.”

    • I used to live there myself, so I know what you mean. A lot of people add a possessive ending to words that don’t have an s there at all: Kroger’s, Meijer’s, Walmart’s, etc., when the names of those stores are Kroger and Meijer and Walmart. *shakes head* I don’t get it.

      • I think it’s a hold-over from knowing the local store-keepers. You don’t go to the Convenient, you go to Lena’s. You don’t go to The Carpet Center, you go to McKim’s. So you go to Walmart’s and Meijer’s and Kroger’s. And Searses. ~grin~

  6. Thanks for the learning and hopefully people would be more careful with this small but important character πŸ™‚

    My Contributions to April A-Z challenge 2014

    Story Teller



    My Third Eye



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