grammartime: apostrophe catastrophe

We’ve all seen the abuse on sign’s, website’s, email’s, and newsletter’s. Theres photographic proof everywhere online, in store’s, and in handwritten note’s from beloved family member’s. Im sure you’ve been a victim of an apostrophe catastrophe at some point in time.

This seemingly innocuous little piece of punctuation can wreak havoc on the meaning, intention, and professionalism of your work. It seems harmless, but a misplaced apostrophe can create confusion and ambiguity in your writing. When used in the wrong way, it snags an editor’s eye and can interrupt the reader’s flow.

Use these helpful tips below and never be a victim again.

The apostrophe is mainly used for three reasons:

  1. to denote possession
  2. contractions in verbs
  3. plurals of some words

possessive forms

The most common function of the apostrophe is to denote possession.

The possessive pronoun forms, such as yours, hers, and its, never include an apostrophe. This can lead to confusion since it is used for denoting possession with nouns.

For example:

  • Rex is Jenny’s dog. He is hers.
  • The students at the high school roam its halls.
  • That toy is not yours. Give me Johnny’s toy.

Words not ending in “s” or “x” require an apostrophe and an “s”:

  • the children’s toys
  • the teacher’s class
  • the writer’s pen

Words ending in “s” or “x” require only an apostrophe:

  • the employees’ contract
  • the horses’ hooves
  • the students’ quizzes

verb contractions

“It’s” is always a contraction of “it is”. It’s always used as a verb. Its function isn’t to denote the possessive, yet it’s one of the most common mistakes with apostrophes.

Other examples include:

  • are not, aren’t
  • you are, you’re
  • they are, they’re

pluralization

Yes, it’s actually a word!

The apostrophe is sometimes used when changing some words to plural form. Most of the time, adding an “s” to the end of a word or abbreviation is sufficient, but if the word becomes ambiguous, an apostrophe can help make it clearer.

For example:

  • BMWs
  • 747s
  • the 1960s
  • Q’s and A’s
  • SIN’s
  • 5’s and 6’s

exceptions to the rule

When people ask me grammar-related questions, my response is always, “it depends”.

Of course, there are always exceptions to every grammar rule. That is precisely what makes it so frustratingly fun to study and discuss.

For example, when denoting possession of some nouns ending with an “s”, using ease of pronunciation as a guide can be the deciding factor whether to add an apostrophe and an “s” or only an apostrophe:

  • the boss’s office: it sounds natural to add an “s” to this word
  • Brussels’ government: it would add an extra “s” sound to the word and make pronunciation awkward

If you want to know more about grammar and how to apply these rules, the Translation Bureau of Canada has a wonderful writing tool available for free.