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February 14, 2017  |  Let's learn apostrophe rules!  |  806 hit(s)

Apostrophes. People get 'em wrong all the time. Right? Some people feel that this is because writers just aren't applying the lessons they should have learned in school. (Can we say "lazy"?) For example, here's a comment that appeared recently on a Facebook thread:
Apostrophes aren't actually very hard at all. They are stand-ins for missing letters. If you can extend "they're" to "they are" then it gets an apostrophe. Plurals never get them. This is literally first grade punctuation.
So I went back to first grade to refresh my memory about apostrophe rules. Here's what I learned!
Use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter, like can't or didn't or ain't.

But don't use an apostrophe when you're just taking out a space! Just letters. Don't write do'n't.

Don't forget won't, which is a contraction for … wo not? Side question: What's ain't a contraction for?

And 'tis.

If you're contracting and, don't forget to use two apostrophes: rock 'n' roll, peaches 'n' cream, Bang 'n' Olufsen.

Use an apostrophe if you're combining a pronoun or noun and a verb, like she'll and there's and who's and Fred's and I'd've and they'll and Mike'll and y'all'd've.

Add apostrophe plus s to the end of a noun to indicate possession: dog's breakfast, pedant's delight. (Question: In dog's, what letter does the apostrophe stand in for? Answer: Shhh.)

Yes, add apostrophe plus s even if the noun ends in s, like the boss's red tie, Texas's Board of Education, and Davy Jones's locker.

And even if the final s is not pronounced, like Descartes's existence and Xerxes's army.

Unless you have a style guide that tells you not to add an apostrophe plus s to singular nouns that end in s, in which case it will be Davy Jones' locker.

Don't add an apostrophe plus s for certain names, like Jesus' and Moses'.

Hmm. We changed our minds, do add an apostrophe plus s for those names.

But don't use an apostrophe for certain names, like Harrods and Barclays and Publishers Weekly. (Question: How do you know which names these are? Answer: Yes.)

Don't use an apostrophe for the possessive form of pronouns! Like hers and its and theirs. Use whose for possessive, not who's.

Except in Dr. Who's 50-year history.

Oh, and except for one, like the evil one's cunning plan.

For the possessive of plurals, add s and then the apostrophe, like dogs' breakfasts or The Smiths' or both Jameses' cars.

Unless the plural doesn't end in s. In that case, mark the plural possessive using apostrophe plus s, just like the singular, as in people's choice and women's march.

And use apostrophe plus s for the possessive of plurals of compounds, like my sons-in-law's cars and the states' attorneys general's responsibilities.

Add an apostrophe when you're talking about time spans ("quasi possessives"), like 6 months' experience.

But not if they're time spans but not quasi possessive: 4 months pregnant.

Don't add any apostrophe at all if the noun is acting as an adjective: A Coen Brothers Production.

This includes terms like teachers union or farmers market.

Carpenters union or carpenters' union? Toss-up.

Don't get these confused: it's Ladies' Room but Women's Room.

It's Mother's Day. Or maybe Mothers' Day? But definitely Veterans Day. See previous.

If the word seems plural-y but is used in a singular sort of way, just add an apostrophe to the s, not apostrophe plus s, like economics' failure and the species' characteristics and the United States' role.

But don't add an apostrophe to the United States Constitution.

Add an apostrophe, but not an s, in for…sake expressions: for goodness' sake.

Unless the word doesn't end in an s sound, in which case do add an apostrophe plus s: for expediency's sake.

Plurals never get apostrophes. It's oranges, not orange's.

Wait, do use an apostrophe for the plural of single letters, like p's and q's and dotting the i's.

And use an apostrophe to indicate decades, like the 1980's. Or don't: 1980s.

And if you do write 1980's, don't add an apostrophe if you're contracting the name of the decades, like the '80s.

Use an apostrophe if you're writing the plural for a term that includes periods, like two M.D.'s on staff.

Or if it would be confusing to leave them out, like do's and don'ts. Or do's and don't's? Or dos and don’ts?
Well, shoot. I just can't imagine why people don't get apostrophes right. The rules, as you can see, are perfectly clear.

With credit, and in some cases apologies, to the following:

Brian Colella   14 Feb 17 - 12:47 PM

I ain't looked it up but I think that ain't is a contraction of "have not", based on seeing usage of "haven't" and "hain't" in literature written or set in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Josh B.   14 Feb 17 - 4:22 PM

I love this post! And I have a sorta related anecdote about language development that you'll appreciate.

My four year old daughter has figured out how contractions work, verbally at least (she's a few years away from learning all these fun apostrophe rules). She uses don't, can't, didn't, won't, and so on, and she uses them all correctly. But she's also invented a new one! She frequently says amn't (for am not). As in, "No daddy, I amn't tired." The pronunciation is something like "am ent" all run together.

This fascinates me, because in a sense, it's not wrong! Her young mind has deduced the pattern and applied it in a way that is actually quite sensible! Do not -> don't. Did not -> didn't. Cannot -> can't. Surely am not -> amn't must work, right?

I'm sure she'll eventually pick up on this exception to the pattern, and figure out that it's still possible to contract "I am not", but you have to contract it right there at the beginning (I'm not) instead of at the end like all the others (I amn't). Why? Who knows! Though if anyone can track down the reason, I'm sure you can :)

mike   14 Feb 17 - 6:47 PM

Josh--I sent your comment to Heidi Harley, who a) is an awesome linguist at U Arizona and b) also has a toddler. :-) Here's what she said:


That's awesome! In fact *amn't is one of the big mysteries of English contractions. Probably phonotactics forbids that coda consonant cluster, but the really weird thing is that when you aux-invert with "I", "aren't I a clever girl" is pretty well-formed, but "*I aren't a clever girl" is terrible. Blessings upon this child for correctly overgeneralizing the auxiliary system to sanity. :) and congrats to her dad for recognizing the abstraction of a grammatical rule!!