Few punctuation marks are as abused as the blameless apostrophe. The better you understand the little critter’s job—whether in forming possessives, contractions, or certain plurals—the less likely you are to do it harm.
People like to throw apostrophes at the letter s like confetti, but not every s wants to be festooned in punctuation. Don’t reach for an apostrophe if you’re just forming a plural—making an apple into an avalanche of apples, say. But do grab the punctuation when you’re showing possession or ownership.
- Mohinder’s sideburns were the envy of all who knew him.
- Her science project’s effects were unforeseen and world altering.
- Satan’s cheerleaders have set fire to the auditorium.
|The aliens' spaceships play Billy Joel on a loop.|
When the possessors are themselves plural, the apostrophe comes after the s, where it dangles like the severed ear in Blue Velvet.
- The hippies’ drum circle is blocking the strollers.
- The aliens’ spaceships play Billy Joel on a loop.
- Satan’s cheerleaders’ uniforms are hellfire red.
But be sure not to give the David Lynch treatment to plurals that don’t end in s.
- The children’s pyromaniacal tendencies ought to be encouraged.
- The men’s feather boas fluttered in the breeze from the wind machine.
- The sheep’s plans for world domination have yet to be realized.
And what about singular possessives that end in s? Opinion is divided. Many Americans like the simpler, apostrophe-only method:
- the cactus’ spines
- David Sedaris’ stories
Most Brits, on the other hand, prefer the full Monty:
- Tom Jones’s knickers
- Prince Charles’s ears
If you decide to go the British route, you should know that because of tradition, certain words take only an apostrophe.
- for goodness’ sake
There’s one kind of possessive that’s allergic to apostrophes: possessive pronouns. You wouldn’t put an apostrophe in my or mine, so don’t even think about shoving one in any of the following:
The ’em in this post’s title is a shortened version of them, in the same way ’cause is a shortened version of because. These words’ beginnings were amputated like gangrenous limbs, and apostrophes were put in their places to show that something had been removed. Contractions are words in which some of the letters have been extracted and replaced with apostrophes.
- what’s = what is
- wouldn’t = would not
- can’t = cannot
- let’s = let us
Some contractions are the source of much confusion and hair-pulling, namely,
- it’s = it is (or it has)
- who’s = who is (or who has)
- you’re = you are
- they’re = they are
Their doppelgängers—its, whose, your, and their—are all possessive pronouns and therefore don’t want apostrophes cramping their style.
It’s/Its, Who’s/Whose, You’re/Your, and They’re/Their
|The incubus blew its nose on my duvet.|
In the heat of composition, it can sometimes be difficult to remember whether you want the version with the apostrophe or the one without. Try to create a titanium connection in your mind between the possessive pronoun his—which, as we all know, wouldn’t wear an apostrophe if its life depended on it—and its cousins its, whose, your, and their. If you can use his and your sentence still makes sense, then the word you want is a possessive pronoun, i.e., sans apostrophe.
- The incubus blew its nose on my duvet. (The incubus blew his nose on my duvet.)
- Whose car is at the bottom of Mom’s swimming pool? (His car is at the bottom of Mom’s swimming pool.)
- Wear your best sharkskin suit. (Wear his best sharkskin suit.)
- Their idea of a hot date is Horlicks and Scrabble. (His idea of a hot date is Horlicks and Scrabble.)
It’s, who’s, you’re, and they’re, on the other hand, are contractions. Expand them into their longer forms to see if they belong where you’ve put them.
- What a long, strange trip it’s been. (it has been)
- She’s a siren who’s got a voice like a foghorn. (who has got)
- I’ll tell them you’re swimming with the dolphins. (you are swimming)
- They’re spending this weekend on acid. (they are spending)
|She's a siren who's got a voice like a foghorn.|
Once upon a time, writing guides urged us to use apostrophes when creating plurals of words ending in numbers or capital letters, such as 1980’s or VCR’s. That rule has since fallen out of fashion, and nowadays the cleaner-looking 2000s and DVDs are preferred.
- The 1990s were good to CEOs.
- His best years were spent in an ’80s hair-metal band. (Note the apostrophe before 80s. That’s to stand in for the missing 19. Remember the gangrenous limbs from earlier? Same thing.)
However, there are still a few plurals that need apostrophes to prevent confusion.
- How many a’s are in aardvark?
- cross your i’s and dot your t’s
After all, the point of using punctuation is to make things clear to your readers. The less time they spend puzzling out your meaning, the more time they’ll have to be persuaded by your prose.