February 1, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 5

This is the unfortunately not the last post I’ll be doing on punctuation. I didn’t expect to have to write six posts, but there are a lot of punctuation marks to cover. I'd rather not have a really long post covering both apostrophes and quotation marks, so, today, we’ll be discussing apostrophes, and on Friday, we’ll look at quotation marks.  And then that will truly be the end of punctuation. We can move onto other, more exciting things, like grammar and common mistakes in writing.


In the English language, the apostrophe serves three purposes: the marking of the omission of one or more letters, the marking of possessive case, and the marking as plural of written items that are not words established in written English (though this last one is debatable; I don’t use apostrophes in this way, but more on that later). The apostrophe is different than the closing single quotation mark, though they share the same symbol.

Apostrophe showing omission:

An apostrophe is commonly used to indicate omitted characters, normally letters, as in contractions (can’t instead of cannot, don’t instead of do not), abbreviations (gov’t in place of government), indicating omitted numbers (’70s instead of 1970s), dialect or archaic language (‘bout instead of about, ‘less instead of unless, and ‘twas instead of it was), and when the normal for of an inflection seems awkward or unnatural (KO’d rather than KOed). I’m going to take a moment here to strongly suggest against using dialectal apostrophes in fiction. There are often much better ways to suggest someone from the South or someone of lower education, and it should be noted that, here in the South, even educated people use truncated language. I know I do. So, please, if you intend on including a character or narrator who uses regional dialect or has a lack of education, don’t depend on truncated dialogue.

Possessive apostrophe:

The apostrophe is also used to indicate possession, distinguishing possessive singular forms from simple plural forms, and both of those from possessive plural forms. There are several rules for apostrophes, so stick with me. If your eyes start to glaze over, I totally understand, but this is important stuff to know. Too many people misuse apostrophes, and possessions misuse seems to be the leader.

Possessive personal pronouns serving as noun-equivalents or adjective-equivalents, do not use an apostrophe, even when they end in the letter s, such as ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, and whose. Other pronouns, singular nouns not ending in s, and plural nouns not ending in s all take ’s in the possessive. For example: someone’s bicycle, a cat’s toys, women’s clothing. Plural nouns already ending in s take only an apostrophe after the pre-existing s when the possessive is formed, such as three cats’ toys.

Singular and compound nouns:

For most singular nouns, the ending ’s is added, as in the cat’s whiskers. If a singular noun ends with an s-sound, practice varies as to whether to add ’s or the apostrophe alone. A widely accepted practice is to follow whichever spoken form is judged better: the boss’s shoes, Mrs. Jones’ hat (or Mrs. Jones’s hat if that spoken form is preferred). This usually differs between writers. In fact, I cursed myself in my book by giving a character a last name ending in s. I ended up using the ’s ending to indicate possession because it sounded better, even though there were three s’s in a row. Compound nouns follow the same method: the Attorney-General’s husband; this Minister for Justice’s intervention; her father-in-law’s new wife.

Plural nouns:

When the noun is a normal plural, with an added s, no extra s is added in the possessive, such as pens’ caps and students’ reports rather than pens’s caps and students’s reports. If the plural is not one that is formed by adding s, an s is added for the possessive, after the apostrophe: children’s hats, women’s hairdresser, some people’s eyes. A few English nouns have plurals that are not spelled with a final s but end in an s- or z-sound: mice (plural of mouse), dice (plural of die), pence (plural of penny). The possessive of these plurals are formed by adding an apostrophe and an s in the standard way: five mice’s nests were found, the dice’s last roll was a seven, his few pence’s value was not enough. Generally, these would be reworded, since they read awkwardly as is.

Joint and separate possession:

A distinction is made between joint possession (Jason and Sue’s emails: the emails of both Jason and Sue), and separate possession (Jason’s and Sue’s emails: both the emails of Jason and the emails of Sue). Style guides differ in how to punctuate this sort of possession, but it seems the norm for joint possession is to give the final noun the possessive inflection and in separate possession, all the possessors have possessive inflection, unless of course a pronoun is involved. When a possessor is indicated by a pronoun, then for both join and separate possession, all of the possessors have possessive inflection (his and her emails; his, her, and Anthea’s emails; Jason’s and her emails; his and Sue’s emails; etc.). There are exceptions, but for your most basic usage, these rules will do.

With other punctuation and compounds with pronouns:

If the word or compound includes a punctuation mark, an apostrophe and an s are still added in the usual way: Westward Ho!’s railway station; Washington, D.C.’s museums. If the word or compound already includes a possessive apostrophe, it creates a double possessive: Tom’s sisters’ careers; the head of marketing’s husband’s preference. Some style guides advise rephrasing. If an original apostrophe or ’s exists at the end of the word, it is left by itself to do double duty: Our employees are better paid than McDonald’s employees; Standard & Poor’s indexes are widely used.

Time, money, and similar:

An apostrophe is used in time and money references: one hour’s respite, two weeks’ holiday, a dollar’s worth, five pounds’ worth, etc. This follows the standard punctuation as stated above.

Use in forming certain plurals:

An apostrophe is used by some writers to form a plural for abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols where adding just s rather than ’s might leave things ambiguous or inelegant. It is general acceptable to use apostrophes to show plurals of single lower-case letters, such as be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Some style guides would prefer to use a change of font, such as dot your is and cross your ts. In fact, I used this in my book: The engineer curled their ds and looped their ts (in the original text, the italicization is opposite, with the d and t italicized and the rest not italicized). Some style guides rule that upper case letters need no apostrophe (I got three As in my exams) except when there is a risk of misreading, such as at the start of a sentence: A’s are the highest marks achievable in these exams. In recent years, style guides have ruled that apostrophes are no longer needed for groups of years (1960s, 1800s, ’80s, ’90s) or in forming the plural of numbers (1000s of years). The apostrophe is also not needed in pluralizing symbols: that page has too many &s and #s on it.

Apostrophe misuse:

Never ever use an apostrophe to indicate the plural form of a noun ending in a vowel. For example, banana’s, folio’s, logo’s, pasta’s, and apple’s are incorrect plural forms. This happens a lot with non-English native speakers. Just remember, apostrophes are used for three reasons, and three reasons only: omitting letters, possession, and in the few exceptions listed in the paragraph above.

So that should give you a basic understand of when to use apostrophes and how to use them properly. Misuse of apostrophes is one of those mistakes that irks me every time I see it. So don't do it. That is all.

Happy writing!


  1. I see even native speakers of English using the apostrophe to indicate plural nouns. For a second, I think it's a possessive, before I figure it out.

  2. I need to direct my middle dd to your blog. She's working on getting apostrophes right - but it's a long road!