Those Problematic Apostrophes

by Kriss Erickson

Those Problematic Apostrophes

One of the most common punctuation errors I’ve experienced is the use of apostrophes. Those elusive little slashes can be confusing. But if you keep in mind exactly what you mean to say, and learn a few simple rules of apostrophe use, they should give you little trouble.


The first rule is: Think about what you’re saying.


If you need to use the word “fathers,” stop a minute to consider exactly what you mean. Do you mean the plural “fathers” as in “founding fathers”? If you do, then you don’t need an apostrophe at all.


But if something belongs to a father or your father, an apostrophe is needed. In this case, the apostrophe comes before the “s.” For example, “It’s my father’s rifle.” In this case, you are explaining that something belongs to your father, so the apostrophe before the “s” denotes possession.


If you’re saying that more than one father owns a rifle, the apostrophe comes after the “s.” For example, “Those rifles belong to Cindy and Jaime’s fathers’.” This is the plural possessive use of an apostrophe.


The second apostrophe rule is: Be careful when using the plural possessive case.


There is often a simpler and less complicated way to state your words when you are describing a situation where more than one person owns something. This is especially important when the word ends in “s.”


For example, you could say “The Simpsons’ dog is friendly.” It’s almost as tricky to say “Simpsonses” as it is to figure out where to put the apostrophe. It’s clearer and easier to say something like “I like Betty and Stan Simpson’s dog.” In this case, you are still using an apostrophe but it’s a single case of possession—so not too complicated.


The third rule of apostrophe use is: Don’t use apostrophes to form plurals!


I’ve seen this done often, even in textbooks, on billboards or other advertising. I’ve even caught myself writing “apostrophe’s” instead of apostrophes, etc. You don’t need an apostrophe to form a plural, so don’t use one. Refer back to rule one: Think about what you’re saying. If you mean that more than one dog is running in a field, write “dogs” not “dog’s.”


If you’re unsure how to form a plural, check a grammar guide or dictionary, but don’t use an apostrophe.


The fourth and final rule of apostrophe usage is: Apostrophes are always used to form conjunctions.


You know what these are. Words that combine two words into one. Like “you’re” for “you are,” “He’s” for “he is,” etc.


And, yes, I’ve seen people write “you’re” instead of “your.” To avoid this mistake, refer again to rule one. Think about what you’re saying. If you mean “you are” and want to shorten it by forming a conjunction, you need to use an apostrophe where the two words are joined. In the case of “you are” becoming “you’re,” the “a” is dropped and an apostrophe is inserted instead.


Apostrophes are needed in these cases:


Used to show possession of one person or item: Place the apostrophe before the “s.”


Used to show possession of more than one person or item: Place the apostrophe after the “s.”


An exception to the use of apostrophes when denoting possession is the word “it.” The only time an apostrophe is used with the word it is in the conjunctive form. That is, when “it is” becomes “it’s.” When you use the possessive form of an inanimate object, no apostrophe is used. For example, if you’re talking about a rock with moss on it, say, “the moss grew up its sides.” No apostrophe.


The possessive use of the word “it” can be ambiguous, however, so think before you use it. Be specific. It is much clearer to say, “the rock was covered with moss,” or even better, “the granite snuggled beneath a mossy quilt.”


Thinking about what you are saying will keep apostrophes in their proper place. With a little thought and planning, problematic apostrophes will be a thing of the past.