Eight Simple Rules for Using Apostrophes

I hold two punctuation marks near and dear to my heart. So dear that I want to get a tattoo of them (if my wife would ever let me get one).

They’re the comma (specifically, the Oxford comma) and the apostrophe.

I want to get a big comma on my right shoulder. Then, when I stand up, it will be an apostrophe.

Apostrophes. Well, ONE apostrophe.

See, it could be a comma OR an apostrophe. Now that’s a double duty tattoo!

I want this for two reasons: 1) I believe in the spirit and intent of the Oxford comma, although I recognize that some people believe the Oxford comma is optional and unnecessary. These people are dangerous and you should avoid making eye contact with them.

2) On the other hand, the apostrophe has specific rules and usages which have been carved into stone and were brought down with Moses during a second, less well-known, trip up Mount Sinai.

My friend, Casey Valiant of Signarama Evansville, challenged me to write this blog post (three years after he challenged me to write a post, “Five Things Miley Cyrus’ Tongue Can Teach Us About Business“), so I came up with my eight simple rules for using apostrophes.

(With apologies to Bruce Cameron.)

1. Apostrophes are never, EVER used to pluralize a word.

It’s not DVD’s, CD’s, laptop’s. If you ever want to put an apostrophe before an S to show that you mean more than one, please wrestle yourself to the ground until the urge passes.

2. There is only ONE exception to rule #1.

And that’s to pluralize single letters. The Oakland A’s, the Model T’s.

But you don’t use it pluralize decades, like 70s and 80s.

However, some editors want you to use it before the decade, to show the “19” is missing: I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

Finally, don’t use it for combinations of letters and numbers, like “iPhone 5Cs.”

3. Apostrophes are used to show contractions.

“It is” becomes “it’s.” “I am” becomes “I’m.” And even “I would have” becomes “I’d’ve,” and looks goofy.

Also, remember, “would have” becomes “would’ve,” not “would of.”

4. Apostrophes are also used to show possessive.

The man’s shirt was on fire.
The woman’s skirt was caught in the front door

And you put apostrophe-S on the end of plural words that don’t end in S.

The children’s recess was interrupted by the meteor storm.
The gentlemen’s picnic was interrupted by the geese’s mating rituals.

5. Its/it’s is a right bastard.

This the one possessive that violates rule #4. Its (without the apostrophe) is possessive, even though every other possessive word in the known universe has an apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction, and not the possessive version of “it.”

It’s weird, I know. No one said the English language made sense; it’s an ever-changing tapestry of illogic and uncertainty.

6. You MAY or MAY NOT use ‘s on words that end in S. It depends.

Depending on whether you’re American or British, there are rules about which one you follow:

American: I love Dr. Seuss’ books.

British: I love Dr. Seuss’s books.

This is true for plural-and-possessive names too.

American: The Bensons’ peanut-and-olive sandwiches are the best I’ve ever had.

British: Eww, what is wrong with you?!

Some Americans prefer the ‘s on words ending in S, but they’ve been known to consort with people who dislike the Oxford comma. They are morally suspect as well.

This is one area where you can choose your preference. It’s just important that you pick one style and stick with it. Be consistent.

But if you chose s’s, I wish you luck in the future. This is your life now.

7. Apostrophes are used to show glottal stops.

Say “button” without the “tt” sound. Sounds like “Buh-Un,” right? That’s a glottal stop; you’re stopping the air flow in your glottis or vocal tract.

You typically don’t see this used in regular words, but you would see it used in proper names.

For example, the “Shi’Ar” alien race from the X-Men comics, uses the apostrophe to make the glottal stop sound. “She. Arr.” You also see apostrophes-as-glottal-stops in the written Klingon language.

Well, you might, Poindexter. I’m sticking with my comic books.

8. There are stupid exceptions that make me want to set my hair on fire.

One thing that always frustrated me when I was writing Branding Yourself was my editor’s insane insistence that we had to write do’s and don’ts, and put the apostrophe in do’s for “consistency’s sake. It looks balanced.”

“Consistency can go have sex with itself,” I suggested, but was overruled.

These days, I still leave the apostrophe out of “do’s,” but now it looks like “dos and don’ts,” which is Spanish for “two and don’ts.” So, thanks for that.

My point is, there are occasional exceptions which are used either as institutional style, but if you follow them, you’d better make sure you can make a case for violating the other 7 rules.

“Because we said so,” is not a good case. Although it was pretty persuasive at the time.

 

Those are my 8 rules for apostrophe use. Where do you stand on this somewhat-misused and misunderstood punctuation mark? Did I miss any? Or did I get one of these rules wrong? Let me hear from you in the comments below.

Photo credit: Andreas06 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.

    Comments

    1. I have taken to the rules laid out in “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, so I have to disagree on the use of s’s.
      Singular possessive nouns should have ‘s regardless of the noun’s final letter:

      Moses’s ill-tempered butterfingers.
      Carl’s bad caverns.
      Dickens’s final novel.

      Possessive plural nouns change things up, requiring just an apostrophe for words ending in s, or ‘s for words that don’t end in s:

      The students’ desks, and the children’s toys, suck.
      All the boys’ genitals were infected by the whorehouse’s rotten pots of honey butter.

      https://www.hamilton.edu/writing/seven-sins-of-writing/the-fourth-deadly-sin-misuse-of-the-apostrophe

      The link leads to a short article which explains, in excellent detail, the dos and don’ts of apostrophes. I’ve borrowed–and twisted–some of their examples, but I invite all to read through it.

      Oh, and I’m a firm advocate for the Oxford comma. I distrust anyone who intentionally omits it.