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We’re fed up. Mad. Furious, even. Apostrophes are being brutalized on menus, signs, in emails, on Facebook posts, and even in newspaper and magazine articles.

It’s time to stop the madness, so we’re going to try to do our part.

Let’s start with the definition of an apostrophe, straight from The Oxford Dictionary:

“Apostrophe: A punctuation mark (‘) used to indicate either possession (e.g. Harry’s book; boys’ coats) or the omission of letters or numbers (e.g. can’t; he’s; 1 Jan. ’99).”

That’s pretty straightforward. Now let’s provide some examples.

How to Use Apostrophes

If we wanted to indicate ownership of this blog post, we’d write, “This is the writer’s blog post.”

But what if more than one person owns something? For instance, if more than one writer worked on this blog post? Easy: The apostrophe goes on the end. “This is the writers’ blog post.”

If we want to use a shortened form of a word (contraction) such as “cannot” or “it is,” we’d write: “We can’t stand the misuse of apostrophes — it’s driving us crazy!”

One contraction that seems to cause a lot of confusion is “you’re.” Here’s the rule: use the apostrophe when you’re making a contraction for “you are.” Don’t use it when you’re indicating possession of something: “Is that your car?”

What about singular nouns that end in “s”? In most cases, you’d add an apostrophe and another “s”: “the boss’s pet project” or “the octopus’s tentacles.” It’s the same if there’s a proper noun that ends in “s,” like Charles Dickens: “This is Dickens’s finest work.”

It gets a bit trickier if there’s a possessive plural proper noun, and it depends on which style guide you follow. If you use The Associated Press, the apostrophe goes at the end, like this: “The Smiths’ house.”

However, if you follow The Chicago Manual of Style, you need to add an apostrophe and an “s,” like this: “The Smiths’s house.”

If you’re applying the apostrophe to numbers — for instance, abbreviating a decade — the apostrophe is placed in front of the number. So instead of writing out “The 1990s,” you would write “The ’90s.”

Note that we didn’t write, “The ’90’s.” Which brings us to our next point:

How NOT to Use Apostrophes

Apostrophes are not used to indicate a plural, despite all those Facebook posts and event invitations that seem to indicate otherwise.

To wit:

“I have four egg’s, toast, bacon, and two apple’s for breakfast most mornings’.”

“Happy Holidays from The Smith’s.”

They’re also never used to make the word “it” possessive, like this:

“The dog lost it’s collar.”

“The pencil is missing it’s eraser.”

And never, ever like this:

“Where is its’ eraser?”

If you’re left scratching your head about all this, Chris J. Strolin presented a compact lesson he called “The Grocer’s Apostrophe” at the delightful website OEDILF — The Omniscient English Dictionary in Limerick Form.

The grocer was proud to unveil
A big sign that read “Apple’s for Sale.”
“That apostrophe’s wrong!
What’s the outcome? So long,
I’ll shop elsewhere for apples!” I wail.

Strolin writes: “This punctuation error is coming up so frequently on signs in the produce sections of supermarkets that it is becoming known as “the grocer’s apostrophe.” Come on, people! It’s not that difficult. Here’s the rundown:

  1. apple = one piece of fruit
  2. apples = more than one piece of this fruit
  3. apple’s = something belonging to the apple (“the apple’s juiciness”) or a contraction for “apple is” (“This apple’s going to taste great.”)
  4. apples’ = something belonging to two or more apples (“the apples’ stems”)
  5. apple’s for sale = more than enough reason for me to shop the competition”

Quiz:

Let’s see if you were paying attention. Can you identify how and when to use an apostrophe in the following sentences?

  1. Which brew is the witchs brew?
  2. Its not the end of the world if you butcher basic grammar — or is it?
  3. The Halloween party is at the Cranes house this year. I hope the Millers come.
  4. Lizzys axe need’s sharpening.
  5. I was born to dance to 80’s music —  “Thrillers” the best!
  6. Did you see the octopus’ creepy tentacles?
  7. When Bobs bobbing for apples, he grabs an apples’ stem with his teeth.

(Scroll down for the answers!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answer key:

  1. witch’s
  2. It’s
  3. Cranes’ or Cranes’s (depending on your preferred style guide)
  4. Lizzy’s | needs
  5. ’80s | “Thriller’s”
  6. octopus’s
  7. Bob’s | apple’s
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