We see plenty of incidences of people using apostrophes in the wrong way. So it’s time to discuss the rules for using them the right way.
There are specific rules about using apostrophes. I’d say most people know — or at least have some idea — when to use one. Unfortunately, too many seem not to know when they shouldn’t.
So here’s a quick look, with assistance from Michael Powell’s book Grammar Geek, at how to use the little mark the right way.
Rule #1: Making Contractions
A contraction is a word formed by taking two words, dropping one or more letters, inserting an apostrophe where letters were deleted then combining the words into one.
Most of us use contractions every day in conversation. The decision to use a contraction in more formal writing may depend on your sensibility and the style guide you follow.
The most popular contractions in English would surely include words like I’ll, you’re, they’re, can’t, he’s, she’s and wouldn’t, just to name a few.
A word like I’ll takes the words I will, drops the W and I in will, and places an apostrophe to indicate missing letters. Can’t combines can and not, using the apostrophe to indicate the missing O. Let’s as in “Let’s make a deal,” is a shortened form of let us. Without the apostrophe, lets means allows.
There are plenty of less common contractions that remain valid even though we don’t encounter them often. They include shan’t for shall not, daren’t for dare not, oughtn’t for ought not and mustn’t for must not. The phrase ne’er-do-well uses the archaic contraction for never. Hymn books give us the contractions o’er for over and heav’n for heaven, reminding us that some songs might be better with one more note providing one more syllable.
I once saw a CBS news promo actually display text on the screen as the announcer said, “wait’ll you hear what happened next.” You can debate how valid you consider wait’ll for wait until is as a contraction. But it unquestionably got the point across in the spot.
When you’re talking about decades, the apostrophe goes before the missing digit, not before the ending S. So you can express the 1950s as the ’50s. But please don’t write it as “the 50’s.”
The contraction it’s causes a great deal of confusion. When you see the apostrophe, then you know it’s can only be a contraction for it is rather than the possessive of the pronoun it, which would simply be its. That brings us to the second rule.
Rule #2: Showing Possessive
An apostrophe also indicates possession. A book Ben owns could be called Ben’s book. A car Matilda owns could be called Matilda’s car. Generally, an ‘S added to the end of a name indicates that ownership. The same rule applies to nouns, not just proper names. Consider, from Powell’s Grammar Geek, these examples:
- The woman’s coat
- The man’s umbrella
- The cat’s whiskers
- James’s house
That last one is a sticky point. When a name ends with an S, should you add just an apostrophe or an apostrophe and a second S? The answer may depend on your style guide. You’ll find supporters in both the James’ and the James’s camps.
It’s worth noting that a possessive doesn’t always require an object. If someone were to point at a coffee cup at the corner of your desk and ask if it was yours, a perfectly valid response would be, “That’s my co-worker’s.” The noun is implied but understood.
When you have a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the S rather than before. If you see a stack of towels by the pool, you should assume they are the swimmers’ towels, which they will use as soon as they get out of the water. But when a pronoun is plural without an S at the end, like men, the restroom for men would be the men’s room.
Sometimes, you’ll use an apostrophe to show a different form of possession. You could refer to the candle’s flicker or a week’s pay. Neither the candle nor the week can actually possess something, but the objects are associated that way with those nouns, so the implication of possession is clear.
Rule #3: The One Acceptable Way to Make Something Plural
This brings me to the rule about using apostrophes that seems to confuse the most people. You don’t use an apostrophe to make a noun plural. If a restaurant put up a sign that read, “Fresh Biscuit’s,” that’d be incorrect. You wouldn’t need an apostrophe there. If you have multiple siblings, you may have brothers and sisters, but you don’t have “brother’s and sister’s.”
I honestly can’t fathom how people use an apostrophe in that manner and think it looks correct. It looks so blatantly wrong to me that it just seems unlikely to me someone wouldn’t know better. Then again, few people I know obsess over grammar and writing the way I do. I have to remind myself of that.
If you’re in need of cash, you might open your bank’s app to determine how many ATMs — not “ATM’s” — are in the area.
There’s only one instance when you can legitimately use an apostrophe — the only one — is when you’re making lowercase letters plural. The classic example is the phrase, “Mind your p’s and q’s.” Of course, I’d write it as “Mind your Ps and Qs” so an apostrophe wasn’t necessary. (I would hope that might discourage people from using apostrophes incorrectly to make something plural.)
Rule #4: In Quotes…But Only in Certain Circumstances
When you are quoting someone, you use quotation marks, which look like a pair of apostrophes. There are two instances in which you’d use apostrophes. In those cases, they’d be called “single quotation marks” rather than apostrophes. But it could be the same button on your keyboard or look like an apostrophe if you’re hand writing them.
The first is when you are quoting something that contains a quote. Here’s an example:
“I need to know who said, ‘I saw him leave first,'” the detective said.
You’re quoting a detective who is quoting some unknown person. The internal quote requires single quotation marks within the double quotation marks. Note that since the internal quote ends the entire quote, you have to “close” both the internal and external quotation marks, so you use single and then double quotation marks back to back.
The other instance is in a headline. You’d use single quotation marks in a headline rather than double quotation marks, whether you’re using a direct quote or a paraphrased quote. Why? That’s one of those ancient rules we follow and that everyone seems to understand.
I hope that clears up some of the confusion about using apostrophes correctly. Granted, there’s a lot of confusion out there. Maybe someday we can look forward to more people actually using apostrophes the way they were meant to be used.