How to Use Apostrophes

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Another blogger asked me about this last week, so I decided to dedicate this week’s Writerly Wednesday to apostrophes. This little piece of punctuation seems to trip a lot of writers up, so let’s look at scenarios in which you would, or would not, use an apostrophe.

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In general, there are two types of words that need an apostrophe: contractions, and possessives.

Contractions: 

A contraction is a single word that joins together two other words, like “don’t,” for “do not, or “could’ve,” for “could have.” (Slightly off topic, but please never write “could of,” “would of,” or “should of.” The word you’re hearing people say that sounds like “could of” is actually “could’ve.” It’s a contraction for “could have.” Please end this nonsense immediately. Thanks.)

The apostrophe replaces whichever letter or letters you’ve removed from the original words to make the contraction. So you put the apostrophe between the “n” and the “t” in “don’t” to replace the “o” from “do not.” Make sense?

Possessives:

A possessive noun is, quite simply, a noun that possesses something. So “Lisa’s house” means “the house that belongs to Lisa.”

Another thing that trips people up about possessives is distinguishing apostrophe placement for singular vs. plural possessives. For singular possessive words, put the apostrophe before the “s.” For plural possessive words, put the apostrophe after the “s.” Don’t know if your word is singular or plural? Just ask yourself, do you mean one, or more than one?

For example, “Choosing a discipline technique is a parent’s prerogative.” Here you’re just talking about one parent, so the apostrophe is before the “s.” But…

“We’re having dinner tonight at my parents’ house.” In this sentence, you’re referring to both of your parents, so it’s plural, hence, the apostrophe after the “s.”

What about irregular plural possessives?

The English language has a lot of irregular plural nouns. If the noun isn’t made plural by adding an “s,” then you still add an “s” to make it possessive, but the apostrophe goes before the “s.” So:

The children’s choir is singing tonight.

What about plural words that aren’t possessive?

Just because a word ends in “s,” doesn’t mean it needs an apostrophe. For example, here is a list of “13 Things You Can Stop Saying to Parents of Twins.” (And a little shout out to my friend, Bec Webb!) In Bec’s jazzy blog title, “parents” simply means “more than one parent.” There is no possession or contraction implied there, so there’s no need for an apostrophe.

This should hopefully go without saying, but if the word is singular, and just happens to end in “s,” it also doesn’t need an apostrophe. No flos’s, toss’, or abacus’, please. Pretty, pretty please.

And if you need to make that word plural? Most of the time, you add an “es.”

One toss

Two tosses

Of course, the good old English language has plenty of irregular nouns, and there are quite a few that end in “s.” For example:

One cactus

Two cacti

And if you wanted to make those words possessive?

My cactus’s pot is cracked.

That’s the cacti’s section of the garden over there.

What about names?

People tend to get really confused about the plural and plural possessive of someone’s last name. For example, if you’re writing a Christmas card to the Smith Family, you could address it simply to “The Smiths.”

But what if you’re writing to the Jones Family? Some people tend to call them “The Jones’,” but this is incorrect. You do not use an apostrophe simply to make someone’s last name plural. The correct plural of Jones is “Joneses.”

But what if you’re talking about something that belongs to the Smith Family, or the Jones Family? The correct possessives for these two names are:

Tonight we’re having dinner at the Smiths’ house.

The Joneses’ dog ran away.

Got it? Good!

If you have a writing related question you’d like me to answer on the blog, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!


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3 comments

  1. Wow! I am going to be bookmarking this and referring to it regularly!
    Thank you so much! And thank you so much for the link! šŸ˜ƒ
    Now, in the case of my family. We’re the Webbs then yes? Because autocorrect changes is to Webb’s.
    And what about this – Whose car is that? It’s the Webbs’s or Webbses…šŸ˜„ It doesn’t look right. But somehow it sounds right…
    Christmas at the Webbs’s. Or the Webbses.
    Looks wrong, but sounds like there should be an extra s.
    But I’m going to guess it’s not right at all! Ha ha!

    Like

    1. Thanks for the idea! Since your last name doesn’t end with s, you only need one s to make it plural or possessive. So “That’s the Webbs’ car.” Or “That’s Mrs. Webb’s car.”

      Like

  2. This was such a great post. Punctuation is hard thing to remember, the rules and minor details are huge. Thanks for the reminder, even though I already forgot and screwed up on some of them. lol

    Like

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