The Vexing Apostrophe

Don't Worry; It's Easier Than You Think October 2, 2002

It’s one of those things that people can’t seem to grasp. Nothing—save for being confronted with a set of flashing yellow traffic-lights—seems to cause people more consternation than that innocuous little punctuation mark: the apostrophe.

I don’t really understand why. Certainly, there are elements of written English that are much more difficult to learn. Plural forms can be a challenge – so many words don’t conform to the rules, and some have rules unique to themselves. Thus, you have a word like “fish,”—which when pluralized is still “fish,”—but which becomes “fishes” when you are speaking about the different varieties: “One fish”; “two fish”; “the fishes of the world.” Now that is confusing.

Writing English is also confusing – especially to those who learn it as a second language – for the preponderance of homonyms: words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and often have very different meanings. I imagine it must be quite daunting to be confronted for the first time with the subtleties of “their”, “there”, and “they’re” or “ade”, “aid”, and “aide”.  Not only are these spelling variations difficult to learn, but spellcheckers will not catch the use of an inappropriate word. I was a victim of this flaw a couple of weeks ago when I foolishly submitted an unedited article to the Voice, which used “here” when I intended to use “hear.” Yes, I do know the difference, but somehow I make more errors when typing than when writing on paper. I promise to start editing my work more diligently.

Yes, there are many things that make written English difficult to learn, but the use of the apostrophe need not be one of them. Unlike pluralization and spelling, the rules for using the apostrophe are simple, concrete and consistent. Once you know them, you can confidently use apostrophes with little worry of making an error. Too few people know the rules these days, and errors in apostrophe use are creeping into even the most respected publications.

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab [See:] states these rules very concisely:

“The apostrophe has three uses:
1) to form possessives of nouns
2) to show the omission of letters
3) to indicate plurals of letters, numbers and symbols.
Apostrophes are NOT used for possessive pronouns or for noun plurals. ”

I would go so far to suggest that the last sentence should in fact be another rule of usage, as a large number of errors in apostrophe use are the result of people using them too liberally.

Let me expand up on these rules:

1) Use The Apostrophe To Form Possessives Of Nouns

Apply an apostrophe to any noun to make it possessive, but not to make it plural:

The cat in the hat
The wild cats of Senegal
The cat’s Pajamas [The pajamas of one cat]
Understanding cats’ behavior [the behavior of many cats, or cats in general]

Usage differs between singular and plural words.

Singular Words:
If the word is singular, add an “S” after the apostrophe, even if it ends in an “S” already:

Paul’s Gloves
Chris’s jacket.

Plural Words:
If the word is plural and does not end in “S”, add an “S”, but do not add one to a noun that is plural that already ends in “S”:

The two boys’ science project.
Algae’s marine habitat.

If in doubt, say the word aloud and it should be clear where an “S” is needed.

2) Use An Apostrophe To Show The Omission Of Letters

This is pretty simple. Use an apostrophe in contractions and truncated words, and place it where the missing letters would go:

Don’t; won’t; shouldn’t; couldn’t; it’s [which always means “it is”] ; That ’70s Show; He was born in ’64; Rock ‘n’ Roll; and ain’t [it may not be proper English, but it IS in the dictionary. If you must use ain’t, remember the apostrophe].

But be careful that you do not use an apostrophe in words that are inherently possessive. Pronouns like:
its, yours, his, hers, theirs, and ours
already connote possession, and should not have an apostrophe. One of the most common errors is the use of “it’s” to show possession, but only use this version when you want to say “it is.”

If you are in doubt, substitute “it is” for “it’s” and read the sentence aloud. It should become immediately apparent that:
The dog tripped on it’s leash
Is incorrect when you substitute “it is.”

3) Use An Apostrophe To Indicate Plurals Of Letters, Numbers And Symbols

While apostrophes should not be used to form the plural of a word, they should be used to form the plural of a number or symbol in order to avoid confusion:

He got five D’s on his report card;
She rolled two 5’s on the dice;
There are too many @’s in that email address.

Also, if a word is used symbolically in a sentence, an apostrophe is needed to pluralize, but only in this rare case, i.e.:

There are way too many “and’s” in that sentence.

Beware, most spell checkers will highlight this word as misspelled. You need an apostrophe in this sentence, however, to avoid confusion. Without it, you would be saying that the word “ands” has appeared too many times, which is not the case.

4) Apostrophes Are NOT Used For Possessive Pronouns Or For Noun Plurals

This rule is stated and restated within the first three rules, but bears being singled out and repeated again. This is where most apostrophe errors occur, and it is becoming very common even in commercial publications that have trained editors on staff.

Most words can be pluralized simply by adding an “S” or and “ES” to the end. Some retain their singular form even when referring to plural subjects. The rules of pluralization, as I mentioned above, are complex and many words are exempt from those rules. Experience with written English and a good dictionary are your only reliable guides. Just remember that the apostrophe plays no part in forming plurals.

Also, be very careful where you place an apostrophe. If you are in the habit of using it to pluralize, you might often be confused about where to place it to show possession. Remember:
“The dog’s noses” is not the same as “the dogs’ noses”

The first form may pass muster with those who disregard apostrophe use, but those in the know will be left shaking their heads. While a multi-nosed dog might be of intense interest to narcotics police, it’s probably not a phrase that you will ever need to use.

Likewise, a “student’s union” is not the same as a “students’ union,” though the difference may be subtle. The first form implies a union to which a single student belongs [which is correct, in that any given member could use this form to indicate this it is his or her union], while the latter indicates the union of a group of students [which is also correct when referring to the union in relation to some or all of its members.] However, many SUs use “Students Union” in their title, which is appropriate as the entire term, “students union” is a title for this type of organization, while the forms with the apostrophe are actually a description of the organization. Simple, right?

Ok, it is not always easy, and many experienced writers will make errors with trickier situations, like whether or not you should use an apostrophe to pluralize an acronym: which you shouldn’t. Most errors that occur, however, are in simple sentences where the rules are clear and easy to understand. Perhaps they are no longer being properly taught, or maybe people have just forgotten.

Those who eschew the apostrophe probably will not notice when others neglect it as well, but for those who do understand its use, a poorly placed one can lead to confusion, laughter, or even a bad opinion of the writer. It pays to use them correctly, or your meaning may be completely muddled and you may not even realize it. If you want to brush up on your knowledge of this handy and necessary little punctuation mark, try one of these sites:

Write Also check out their Friends of the Apostrophe message base to see just how much apostrophe misuse upsets some readers:

Lesson Tutor. This page is for grade 11 students, but their advice is clear and sound:

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Excellent site for all of your writing questions:

Also consider getting a copy of the 21st Century Grammar Handbook, an excellent and very simple to use handbook that is presented in A-Z dictionary format. Good for when you understand the basics of grammar, but need some quick clarification:
21st Century Grammar Handbook. 1993. New York: Princeton Language Institute.

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.