apostrophes

“The apostrophe has three uses:

1. to form possessives of nouns
2. to show the omission of letters
3. to indicate certain plurals of lowercase letters”

~the OWL at Purdue

Apostrophes hold a space, like a friend saving a seat. Most of the time they are holding it for letters or numbers that would normally sit there, but sometimes they are used with plurals to hold a clarifying space between a lowercase letter and the s, so nobody gets confused.

Professional Examples

Possessives

  • Richard Parker opened his maw and the squealing rat disappeared into it like a baseball into a catcher’s mitt.

~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

  • The life jackets were at hand’s reach.

~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

  • If we teachers do not endorse genius and self-overcoming, can we be surprised when our students find their ideal images on TV’s latest persona ads?

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • The buses all had girls’ names.

~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

  • The teachers have buckled to their students’ views.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

Plurals

  • “Mind your p’s and q’s.”
  • “Don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”

~expressions
(I wish I could find examples in context, so please email me if you find one)

  • I carried Katie over to one of the ambulances and set her down on the feet of her pj’s.

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

  • Every mom has a seemingly endless catalog of to-do’s.

~from Dana Points’s “Editor’s Letter” in Parents Magazine April 2009

  • In English, we don’t give many Ds, or Cs for that matter.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • My parents were always especially happy to let them test our IQs.

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

  • Pictures, testimonials, videocassettes, and CD ROMs (some bidden, some not) arrive at the door from colleges across the country, all trying to capture the student and his tuition cash.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • And the ratio of CEO to worker pay has increased dramatically: In the 1960s and ’70s, the ratio was between 26% and 37%.

~from Jean Anyon’s Radical Possibilities

Contractions vs Possessives

  • That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

  • Or, as Marianne Moore put it, “The world’s an orphan’s home.”

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

How Apostrophes Work

Apostrophes stand in place of missing characters (letters or numbers) in order to shorten words or indicate a clipped pronunciation, as in contractions (I’d=I would) or shortened decades (’60s=1960s). They also sometimes help with plurals by holding a place to avoid confusion.

Possessives (noun’s object)

The original ending for a possessive was –es and now we omit the e and replace it with an apostrophe. (If we still used the Old English ending, we would say “the doges bone” instead of “the dog’s bone.”) Why cut out the e? Because we no longer pronounce the extra syllable.

FUN TRIVIA: Shakespeare often used –‘d because in his time –ed was pronounced as an extra syllable unless clipped by an apostrophe: wrong’d would be one syllable, while wronged would be two. Now that we no longer pronounce most –ed endings, the apostrophe isn’t necessary. For some reason convention stuck with the apostrophe replacement in possessive endings (-es) but not past tense (-ed).

In modern English we distinguish between singular and plural possessives by using an -‘s for singular and only an apostrophe at the end of plurals ending in -s. The girl’s mom is the mother of one (singular) while the girls’ mom is the mother of multiple girls (plural). Singular nouns that happen to end in s (like Chris) still take the -‘s (Chris’s), and plurals that don’t end in s (like children) also use -‘s (children’s).

The big exception is for possessive pronouns — including its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs, etc. At one point in history these used the -’s, but they don’t anymore, including the possessive pronoun its. The apostrophe + s used with it indicates the contraction of it is, not possession.

Lowercase Letters

When making a letter plural, the apostrophe acts as a spacer or separator between the letter(s) and the pluralizing s to avoid confusion: abc’s or “cross your t’s.” This also applies to initialisms written in lowercase, such as pj’s. When letters are written as capitals, the apostrophe is not necessary but some publishers choose to place an apostrophe with all plural letters, lower- or uppercase.

Avoiding Confusion in Plurals and Past Tense, etc

Mainly this happens with do and no, but there are others, like when you abbreviate biceps and triceps to bi’s and tri’s (which almost goes back to the placeholder idea of apostrophes). Adding only an s looks strange and might confuse the reader about how to pronounce it, and -es doesn’t work either (think of the word does — completely different). So if you’re writing about do’s and don’ts, yeses and no’s, the apostrophe is correct. This also applies to words like mic (short for microphone) when used as a verb: All the actors were mic’ed and ready to go.

Mistaken Apostrophes

Plural numbers, acronyms and initialisms are often given an apostrophe before the s by mistake. Remember that these only take an apostrophe if they are possessive, such as a TV’s resolution. When they are plural but not possessive, use only a lowercase s: CEOs, ATMs, 1980s, 1700s, 123s, etc.

Self Check

Any time you have an s on the end of a word, stop and think about whether or not it needs an apostrophe.

  1. Does the following word belong to it?*
  2. Is the s standing in for is/has?
  3. Is it a lowercase letter or small word that would be confusing without an apostrophe, like a’s or do’s?

In any of those three cases, add the apostrophe. Otherwise, leave it out. *Also leave out the apostrophe with #1 when using a possessive pronoun: its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs.

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7 Comments

    1. Haha, I see your point, but in grammatical terms the dog does possess the photo by being in it. We would say it is a photo OF the dog, so we can also say it’s the dog’s photo. 🙂

      Reply

      1. Many thanks, trying to explain the apostrophy to a class of Chinese students who don’t enjoy English Grammar but want to learn English yesterday is not easy. your blogs are a great help….. and your picture of the rabbit in a car seat brought back fond memories

        Reply

        1. I can only imagine! I have just one student like that this semester and can feel his continual frustration. So glad the blogs help!

          It’s strange to think of car seats and stuffed animals being just fond memories since I’ve been stuck so long in the stepping-on-Legos stage of life. It’s a good reminder how fast it will seem in retrospect, thanks!

  1. I teach in Beijing as my job but am home in the UK for a bit of a break but still teaching and still teaching Chinese (restaurant workers) who have no English at all 😦 but at least they are keen.
    My daughter had the same rabbit (or similiar) a hundred years ago.

    Reply

  2. In which case do you use its and it’s ? I know you covered it technically; I need it ;( in simpler format please.

    Reply

    1. It’s with an apostrophe means “it is.” If it doesn’t have an apostrophe, it means something belongs to it.

      So you would use “it’s” for “it’s hot outside” and “its” for “What’s its name?” or “Its collar says Fido” because the name and the collar belong to “it” (such as a dog).

      Hopefully I’ve made that simple enough, but let me know if it doesn’t make sense still. 🙂

      Reply

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