Editing, whether it is for an academic journal, a short story submission, or a non-fiction manuscript for publishing, always follows basic rules of grammar and punctuation. This blog article is the second in a series of editing skills and services, such as those  FirstEditing.com provides. This blog will help you learn the basic rules of apostrophes, and how to use them accurately in your work.

Proper grammar uses apostrophes for plurals, to show possession, and for contractions.

For plurals of letters and numbers, you can express the apostrophe like this:

Tanith Belbin scored four 9’s in the Olympic games.

Basic Rules of Apostrophes

I received three A’s this semester.

However, when writing the plural of a date, such as “the 1940s,” an apostrophe is not needed to represent the plural.

Possession can be tricky.

In some instances, the use of an apostrophe is easy:

That book is Jean’s.

Karen’s car is at the mechanic.

However, when using a plural possessive, people often get tripped up.

There is an easy way to remember how to do this.  If the noun is a plural word without an s, the apostrophe goes after the word.  For example, “the women’s book club.” Women is a plural, so the apostrophe is placed after the word.  For a noun that becomes a plural word when you add the s, the apostrophe simply goes after the s. An example of this is the phrase, “the stores’ owners,” which denotes multiple stores and multiple owners.

Finally, the apostrophe is used in contractions.

I’m = I am

He’s  = he is

It’s = it is *This one trips up many people! Try substituting “it is” in place of your contraction to make sure it’s what you want to say. You would say of a cat, “its fur is soft,” NOT “it’s fur is soft.”

We’re = we are

You’re = you are

She’d = she would

He’ll = he will

How to Improve Your Writing

In contractions, instead of showing a plural or possession, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing part of the word.

Apostrophes can be tricky.

The constant misuse of the apostrophe is now so widespread that it is almost universal. A misplaced apostrophe can mark you out as having an incomplete grasp of the written language just as much as an error in spelling can. Worse, your computer’s spell-check will not warn you of the most blatant apostrophe errors. The underlying principles are easy to master. The primary and correct use of the apostrophe is to indicate something left out.

Examples:

Can’t for cannot, and shan’t for shall not: the apostrophe stands in place of the missing letter o in not;

Further correct examples:

Isn’t for is not;

It’s for it is.

Here we come to one of the most common errors! It’s always means it is, and should never be used for possession.

What do I mean by possession? For example, the mouse was very tiny, and its tail was only half an inch long.

Its tail means the mouse’s tail. People get confused because they see the apostrophe in mouse’s and they think they have to put it into its as well. It is one of those idiocies in written English that is annoying and requires some explanation (see principles 2 and 3 below).

Don’t (do not) use the apostrophe with pronouns!

What is a pronoun? It’s (it is) a little word that stands for a thing or a person. Pronouns are such words as I, me, my, she, her, he, him, his, it, its, we, us, our, you, your, they, them, their.

You wouldn’t write hi’s, would you? Of course not! So don’t write it’s unless you mean it is. He is would be he’s.

Unnecessary Apostrophe

There is no need for any apostrophe, and how it crept into English writing I do not know. As a child at elementary school, I was told the apostrophe stood for the missing pronoun. So Mike’s pencil would be an abbreviation for Mike his pencil. The theory is appealing because it is logical and fits with principle 1, but I believe it to be false.

It appears there is some disease in the English mind that tends over the centuries to increase the number of apostrophes. This disease has now reached its crisis, in that it can hardly get any worse.

The word butted up to the apostrophe must make sense. For example, the children’s toys, because there is no such word as childrens. Similarly, the people’s choice. The word preceding the apostrophe should be singular or plural according to the intention of the writer (examples: the solicitor’s office; solicitors’ offices). Where a singular word ends in an -s, such as St. James, the correct possessive form is St. James’s (as in St. James’s Church, St. Thomas’s Hospital), with the extra -s being also normally pronounced in speech. (According to the Chicago Manual of Style’s grammar rule 7.22, the last s may be dropped; St. James’ Church, St. Thomas’ Hospital.)

Originally posted 9/11/2010 and happily updated 10/28/2017. Thanks for reading!

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