Writer’s misunderstandings’ about the rules for an apostrophes’ use’s run the gamut—from leaving it out where its needed, to putting it into numerous’ word’s where it doesnt’ belong.
Room for error
As an editor I often see apostrophes incorrectly placed (or missing), though not as horrifically as in my title and the lead sentence above. Don’t expect editors to ignore these and fix them later.
Strunk and White put the apostrophe front and center, as rule 1 in their classic The Elements of Style, advising writers to “form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s, whatever the final consonant,” (exceptions include ancient names such as Jesus’ and Moses’ and Brutus’).
Today, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, preferred by many magazine editors, advises adding just an apostrophe (and not the additional s) when a singular noun ends in s.
While the experts may not agree on all things apostrophic, here are a few basics:
Singular or plural
If a noun is singular, add ’s to make it possessive: (one) boy’s room, Jerry’s book. If a noun is plural, add an apostrophe at the end: (more than one) boys’ room.
Plural nouns that are not possessives do not need apostrophes: hats, rings, boys, etc. To form the possessive of an “irregular” plural (one that doesn’t end in s — like children or people), add ’s: children’s, people’s.
Avoid goofy errors:
● student’s entrance (Is this a private entrance?)
● mothers’ ring (Do you have more than one mother?)
● Adam’s hat’s (Does the hat possess something too? A brim?)
Possessive or contraction
When you use an apostrophe with a personal pronoun you are not showing possession but forming a contraction:
● it’s = it is
● you’re = you are
● who’s = who is
Possessive personal pronouns don’t have apostrophes: his, hers, its, theirs, yours, ours, and whose. As Strunk and White note, “It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.”
Letters and numerals
Use apostrophes when omitting numerals or letters: Class of ’62, the ’20s, rock ’n’ roll, but not in plurals: 1960s, 747s, in the low 20s, ABCs.
Any grammar book can help, but the big three are those mentioned above and The Chicago Manual of Style (a favorite of book editors). See also: The Girl’s Like Spaghetti (by Lynn Truss).
Lifelong journalist Cynthia Schnereger has served as a CWG mentor and at Light & Life magazine, retiring as managing editor in 2010. Now she’s reading, knitting, and writing whatever the Lord puts on her heart.
Photo Credit: © Vesna Cvorovic – Fotolia.com