Contrary to most of English, the apostrophe is a fairly easy lesson. It only has two uses – just two – and they are 99% consistent. Because it’s so easy you’d think that you would rarely see errors. WRONG. I see errors all the time, half of the time it’s me that’s making them.
Let us review these two uses, shall we?
Oh, wait … oh dear … I lied. This is a bit more complicated than I originally thought. I guess there is a reason that apostrophe rhymes with catastrophe. Hang on, because here we go!
Possession – We’re not talking demonic possession. That would be far more exciting. We’re talking about legal possession, as in owning or having with you at the time. These are names or sometimes nouns and pronouns.
- John’s wallet is empty.
- Here is Melissa’s brush.
- The book’s teachings are lame.
- Where is the house’s number?
Possession on words ending in “s” – This is where things can get a little tricky. In general, if it is a noun add an apostrophe + s, if it’s a proper noun, particularly surnames, stick the apostrophe at the end (so you don’t change the name inadvertently).
- The class’s teacher wears a toupee.
- The lass’s pony broke the gate.
- That is Mr. Edwards’ mailbox. (It would never be written “Edward’s” as that changes the name.)
This has one condition – if a proper name is traditionally said with the double s sound, like the Jones’s (“Jones-ez”) then the apostrophe + s is used. The same goes for first names that end in s, like Atticus. It would be Atticus’s thingy.
Possession with Plural regular nouns – Sometimes several of something possess something together. This is where the apostrophe with no “s” comes in handy.
- These are the girls’ drinks.
- The guys’ shirts need to be washed.
- The actresses’ award. (Not actresses’s!)
Possession with irregular nouns – Some nouns plural forms do not use the “s” at the end. Children, teeth, women, etc. With these, be sure to not add an extra “s” when making them possessive.
- The children’s books (not childrens’s!)
- The women’s purses.
- The men’s coats.
Possessive plurals with proper names – this is where your brain will start to melt. Be warned. What if there are several Jones families that all own something? What then? In this unlikely event, you would have to do this super awkward construction:
- The Joneses’s yacht. (remember, Joneses is usually pronounced so yes, there would be three repetitions of the “s” sound!)
- The Hastingses’ car.
Possession with compound nouns. A compound noun is a noun with hyphens. The apostrophe always comes at the end. If it is to be plural, the plural “s” comes behind the first word.
- My mother-in-law’s famous bundt cake.
- My fathers-in-law’s law firm. (both fathers-in-law own the firm)
Possession with two separate people – when two people are in possession of an item the apostrophe is always behind the second person. Always.
- Gandalf and Frodo’s quest.
- Mother and father’s estate.
FINALLY – the other use for an apostrophe – for contractions!
When a letter is omitted when two words are joined, an apostrophe is placed there instead.
- Don’t, won’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, haven’t, you’ve, I’ve
However – it is never used in personal pronouns (this is why it’s and its gets so messed up!)
- These are: hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, and oneself
There are a few other fiddly little bits, but I will not cover them here. If you are stuck and need extra help, here are a few other resources:
- The Oatmeal: “How to Use an Apostrophe” (a slightly sillier approach)
- Purdue OWL: Apostrophe
- Your Dictionary: Apostrophe
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