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The Grammar Bitch: The Case of the Errant Apostrophe

Oh, the apostrophe. No other piece of punctuation has the ability to inspire such rage in me. One might wonder why a silly little mark, taking up just the tiniest bit of space on the page, would make me so angry. Well, I’ll tell you why. Very few people seem to know how to use the apostrophe correctly. Apostrophes are always popping up places they aren’t supposed to, and no one seems to notice.

Here’s the deal with apostrophes: most people use them when they aren’t supposed to. They often use them to indicate plurals, which is completely and totally wrong. If you want to indicate more than one of something (that’s what “plural” is), you add an “s” or an “es” to the end of the word. You do not use an apostrophe.

You have one dog. I have two dogs. Nobody has three dog’s, because that is wrong and weird and the apostrophe doesn’t belong there.

One dress. Two dresses. One glass. Two glasses. One earring. Two earrings. One letter. A whole alphabet of letters. Do you see any apostrophes? Nope, because we’re forming plurals. You want to indicate more than one of something? Leave the apostrophe the hell out of it!

 

So, Grammar Bitch, when should I use an apostrophe? I’m glad you asked. In general, apostrophes are used for possessives and contractions.

Possessives indicate that something belongs to something or someone: Joe’s car. Simba’s catnip. America’s state parks. The Grammar Bitch’s rage.

A contraction is when you take two words and squish them together into one word, and the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter(s). “Do not” becomes “don’t,” and the apostrophe takes the place of the missing “o.” “I am” becomes “I’m,” with the apostrophe taking the place of the missing “a.

 

Easy enough, right? Well, apostrophes can cause trouble in other places:

People get confused with apostrophes near the word “your.”

Correct: Your house. Your car. That ice cream is yours. You’re a brilliant person. (In this last example, “you’re” is a contraction of “you are,” and the apostrophe is taking the place of the missing “a.”)

Your’s is not a word. Ever. Under any circumstances.

 

The word “let,” when combined with an apostrophe, can be problematic, as well.

Correct: No one ever lets me have any fun. She lets her dogs out first thing in the morning. Let’s go to the movies. Let’s get started. (“Let’s” in those last two examples is a contraction, with the apostrophe taking the place of the missing “u” in “us.”)

 

Apostrophes have a funny relationship with decades, too.

Correct: The 1980s. The ’60s.

Incorrect: The 70’s. The 1820’s.

 

Wow, that’s a lot of rules, huh? You can see why so many people get confused around apostrophes. I’m going to throw out a little bit of advice that may be a bit controversial, if you’re the kind of person who cares about this sort of thing: When in doubt, leave the apostrophe out. (It rhymes and everything, so it must be good advice.) There are too many extra apostrophes floating around out there. Help keep the apostrophe population under control.

Many thank’s. (CALM DOWN. I’M JUST KIDDING, PEOPLE!) Anyone have any good stories of errant apostrophes in the wild? Still confused about where to put one and why? Share your stories or ask your questions in the comments.

39 replies on “The Grammar Bitch: The Case of the Errant Apostrophe”

I work in an industry that is rife with abbreviations. Getting others to understand that said abbreviations do not require apostrophes when they become plural is an uphill battle. I’ve had documentation changed from “all user IDs must be authenticated” to “all user ID’s must be authenticated”. When I ask “what is this ‘must’ that belongs to the ID?”, I get funny looks.

A “curly” apostrophe should resemble a 9 and not a single opening quotation mark (which will resemble a 6). Computers have a hard time with this when the apostrophe follows a space, as in “The ’60s” above (and probably here, too).

Here’s a mind blow: it’s actually a single right apostrophe to indicate an abbreviated decade or year. This is because you are technically removing the first two numbers of the year. It’s almost always written incorrectly, and most word processing programs don’t even offer it as an option, but it’s the truth!

I usually put a right apostrophe immediately after the word before the date, then write the numbers (i.e., “the’60s”), then insert a space between the word and the apostrophe. That way, the apostrophe faces the correct way! It’s ridiculously difficult, but I can’t handle doing it wrong.

Possessive apostrophes for words that end in ‘s’. When I was growing up, it was taught that a possessive word ending in ‘s’ was given an apostrophe but no additional ‘s’ at the end.

So ‘James’ bike’.

I’ve recently become aware that most people would write it: ‘James’s bike’.

So which is correct?

Funny, because I would pronounce it ‘James bike’ not ‘James-es bike’. So I guess the pronunciation part comes down to what you’re familiar with. I also use the Oxford comma because that’s what I was taught in my teeny Catholic school.

I did eventually drop the double space at the end of the sentence though.

AP style says “James’ bike,” but Chicago says “James’s.” I prefer the latter, but stick to AP for most things (except serial commas). The AP’s stubborn refusal to recognize that the Oxford comma is always correct breaks my heart.

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