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How To Avoid Apostrophe Fails

Remembering where and when to use apostrophes may seem daunting, but there are actually only a few rules you need to know.

by MATT STOKES | DECEMBER 21, 2018

This is an entry in an ongoing series of examinations of writing mistakes people frequently make and tips on how to be a better writer. 

Being both a professional marketer and a professional grammar nerd, my worlds collide when I encounter signs such as these:

That rogue apostrophe—turning what should be Tattoos and Body Piercing into And Body Piercing belong to somebody named Tattoo—was likely written by somebody over-correcting for rules about plurals and possessives that can be confusing. And for that, this tattoo shop has now spent good money on an embarrassing sign.

They could have easily avoided this mistake if they’d looked up the rules about apostrophe use. Because, while they can be a little baffling, there are some easy things to keep in mind about when to use apostrophes.

Singular Possession: When it’s one person or thing, add an apostrophe + s

This is the most basic apostrophe rule, and the most important to remember. When you’re talking about possession, add an apostrophe + s to the noun:

This is this website’s blog.
This is Matt’s blog.
This is Matt Stokes’s blog.

This rule even applies when words end in s, which is a rule that is not widely honored—and as somebody with the last name Stokes, I’ve even had to correct members of my own family about this.

There are exceptions to this rule (and all rules detailed in this post), most notoriously with regard to the word it. When you need to show that an object belongs to it, you should add an s without an apostrophe:

Give the dog its bone.
Its screen is broken.
I saw the movie, and its acting is wonderful.

Plural Possession: When it’s more than one person or thing, add an s after the apostrophe

When plural words end in s, and you need to show possession, you simply add an apostrophe after the s.

the kids’ playground
the parents’ date night
the dogs’ leashes

But this can get complicated when a word refers to something plural, but acts as an individual unit itself. The word children, for example, refers to more than one child, but the word is considered to be singular.

the children’s hospital
the people’s champion
the women’s restroom

And when you’re talking about a last name that ends in s, it can get even more cumbersome. To make my own last name plural, I need to add an es to it:

There are too many Stokeses in this house.

…and to show possession on multiple Stokeses, I’d need to add an apostrophe after the final s:

Welcome to the Stokeses’ house.

Plural: If it’s not a possessive, you should almost never add an apostrophe

This is the rule I often see violated on signs. “Hot donut’s now,” and the like. But remember: Apostrophes don’t make words plural. I think people are over-correcting for grammar rules they can’t quite keep track of. The thing to remember is that you don’t need to add an apostrophe to a plural when it’s not possessive:

burgers and fries
senators and representatives
nouns and verbs

The one exception to this rule is that apostrophes are sometimes used in plural, non-possessive words to avoid confusion about the word:

Cincinnati has two c’s, three i’s, and three n’s.

Because nothing can be simple, an optional exception to the exception is the phrase do’s and don’ts. To be consistent, you would either have to write dos and don’ts, which looks odd, or do’s and don’t’s, which looks even odder. The accepted spelling, adopted for everyone’s convenience and sanity, is do’s and don’ts.

Contractions: The apostrophe goes where the removed letters and numbers would have gone

Apostrophes are also used in contractions in an entirely different function from showing possession. As grammar blogger Scott Crosby puts it, “The ancient elders of the English language should’ve come up with a different punctuation mark for this, but they didn’t, so we’re stuck with this wave-particle duality of nature.” He’s right, and it’s useful to think of the contraction apostrophe as totally distinct from the possession apostrophe.

With contractions, the apostrophe simply goes where the missing letters or numbers would have gone.

do not = don’t
cannot = can’t
1970s = ‘70s
would’ve = would have
shouldn’t’ve = should not have

Contractions are going to be the only times you’ll use non-nouns and non-pronouns with apostrophes. As a general rule, you should never use verbs with apostrophes:

Sit’s
Run’s
Walk’s
Live’s

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