I’ll be honest. Learning to use an apostrophe properly was the most frustrating punctuation lesson to ever be drilled into my head. English grammar is difficult enough, but the apostrophe haunted me to no end. I was baffled. Flummoxed. After all, an apostrophe is such a small thing. How complicated did it have to be?
For a long time I felt stupid for not grasping the concept. It took until I was in college to truly understand how to use it well. To this day, I will still muck it up on rough drafts if I’m not paying attention.
I understand your pain.
To that end, here are the very simple rules to proper apostrophe usage.
If a word is plural, do not use an apostrophe. Plural means there are two or more of something. If the word indicates there is more than one of a thing, do not slide in any apostrophes. For example:
The cat museum has an impressive collection of paintings.
My favorite painting has seven cats playing poker.
Now, because we are talking about the English language, there are exceptions for the plural rule. Two, to be precise:
- Are you using a single letter word as a plural? Insert an apostrophe. For example- There are two d’s in the name “Todd.”
- Are you using an abbreviated plural number? Again, use apostrophes. For example– I miss my 80’s style mullet.
apostrophe & possession
If using a word that indicates possession, meaning it ‘owns’ something, always insert an apostrophe before the ‘s.’ Always. This tells the reader that the subject and object are joined together in ownership. For example:
My wife’s recipe for lasagna is world class.
My brother’s skill with Italian cooking, on the other hand, is questionable.
Writing a plural possessive brings has a slightly different rule. Plural possessive means that a group of two or more things own something. Apostrophes are still used, but the second ‘s’ that would indicate possession is dropped. For example:
In fact, both of my brothers’ kitchen skills need improvement.
In this instance, I have two brothers and both could use some culinary instruction.
The only exception to this ‘dropping the second ‘s’ rule ‘ is if the plural word has a unique spelling that indicates it is already plural. In this case, use as if it is a singular possessive. For example:
The children’s concert was delightful except for the trombones. They were awful.
Contractions are the combination of two words into one and have the easiest rule concerning apostrophes. Use them. Always. The apostrophe indicates there are missing letters and condenses the meaning of two words into one. For example:
I can’t (can not) find my purple umbrella.
It shouldn’t (should not) be that difficult to locate it.
I don’t (do not) want to go out without it.
I’d (I would) look silly.
Its & It’s
Herein lies my personal demon. The rules are simple, but my brain has an evil blockage that overrides proper punctuation when it comes to its and it’s. Many people I know suffer from this problem and there is talk of forming a support group.
If using ‘it’ in the possessive form, do not insert an apostrophe. For example:
A howler monkey uses its prehensile tail to grasp tree branches. That way, it does not fall to the ground and bonk its head.
If using ‘it’ as a contraction, use an apostrophe. For example:
It’s (it is) a wonderful thing to have a prehensile tail and avoid headaches all day long.
apostrophe use and names
Lastly, there are some particular rules associated with using apostrophes with names. At times, names will end in an ‘s’ simply for the way they are spelled, such as James, Charles, Jess and Agnes.
If writing a possessive form of a name ending in ‘s,’ there are two ways to construct it:
- Agnes’ boyfriend likes to eat his lasagna in a tree.
- Agnes’s boyfriend has a prehensile tail to help with balance while eating his food.
Both forms are acceptable, but be consistent. If you use one form, use it every time.
Last but not least, we come to plural possessive names. A frightening sounding grammar label, but it is as simple as falling out of a tree for lack of a prehensile tail.
With plural possessive names, place the apostrophe after the ‘s.’ For example:
I often bring my purple umbrella to the Smiths’ backyard, as their children have a habit of throwing down hotdogs from their favorite tree.
and that’s how to use an apostrophe
As a general rule remember to always apply apostrophes to contractions and possessive forms, but not to plurals.
I’d love to hear your apostroph-lyptic stories, so please share them in the comments below.