5 Essential Apostrophe ( ' ) Rules You Shouldn't Overlook in Writing

    Rand Zhang
    ·January 14, 2024
    ·9 min read
    5 Essential Apostrophe ( ' ) Rules You Shouldn't Overlook in Writing
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    1. Forming Possessives

    When it comes to the English language, mastering the apostrophe can be a bit of a balancing act. Let's break down the rules for forming possessives, which is one of the most common uses of this tricky punctuation mark.

    Singular Nouns

    Adding 's to Names

    To show possession for most singular nouns—including names—we add 's. For example, "Sarah's book" indicates that the book belongs to Sarah.

    Tip: Even if a name ends in s, like "James," it is correct to add an 's to create the possessive form: "James's car."

    Irregular Nouns and Possession

    Irregular nouns can throw many writers off course. The general rule is that singular irregular nouns also take 's for possession as in "the child's toy" or "the woman's dress."

    Plural Nouns

    Plurals Ending in 's'

    For plural nouns ending in s, we simply add an apostrophe at the end without an additional s: "the dogs' owner" or "the Joneses' house." This keeps our writing clear and prevents a hissing cacophony.

    Plurals Without 's' Ending

    Plural nouns not ending in s are treated like singular nouns and receive an 's. For instance, "the children's games" or "the men's department."


    What are common errors in the use of apostrophes?

    Apostrophe errors often arise from confusion between plural forms and possessive forms. For instance, mistakenly using an apostrophe with plurals such as in “apple’s” instead of “apples” for more than one apple. Also common is misplacing apostrophes with years, like writing “1980’s” when referring to the decade (1980s).

    Are people really judging me for something this little?

    It’s less about judgment and more about credibility. A misplaced apostrophe might seem trivial but can undermine trust in your attention to detail—essential in professional communication.

    Aaaaahh! What if I’m still confused?

    That's perfectly okay! Remember that everyone has unique strengths; yours might not lie in grammar—and that’s fine. However, paying attention to details is important for making a polished impression. If you’re unsure, don't hesitate to look it up or consult a guide.

    By grasping these foundational guidelines on possessives with singular and plural nouns, you’ll not only write with confidence but also convey professionalism through your meticulous use of punctuation.

    2. Contractions

    Contractions are a staple in English writing, serving as a bridge between formal prose and conversational ease. They reflect the evolution of language and play a pivotal role in modern communication, allowing us to convey ideas with brevity and fluidity.

    Common Contractions

    It's vs. Its

    One of the most frequent points of confusion is distinguishing "it's" from "its." Simply put, "it's" is a contraction for "it is" or "it has," used in sentences like:

    "It's going to be a sunny day."

    On the other hand, "its" indicates possession, belonging to it, without an apostrophe:

    "The company changed its policy."

    You're vs. Your

    Another pair that often trips up writers is "you're" versus "your." The former is a contraction for "you are":

    "You're going to love this book!"

    While "your" denotes possession:

    "Is this your coat?"

    Uncommon Contractions

    Unique contractions also pepper English literature and speech but are less prevalent in everyday use.

    'Twould and 'Tis'

    From classic texts, we get contractions like "'twould" (it would) and "'tis" (it is). These archaic forms add a poetic touch or historical authenticity:

    "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." - Alfred Lord Tennyson

    Omitting Letters in Speech

    In casual conversation or when capturing dialects in writing, letters are often dropped to reflect natural speech patterns:

    "'Round here, we don't take kindly to strangers."

    As reflected by Ronald J. Ventola II’s observation on mistyped apostrophes affecting clarity in formal documents, ensuring correct apostrophe use is crucial across various contexts.

    The nuances of contractions reveal the intricacies of English punctuation. While some may debate their necessity—arguing spoken language does fine without them—the written word demands precision. Misuse can lead not only to misunderstanding but potentially significant consequences as evidenced by punctuation mishaps throughout history.

    By mastering common and uncommon contractions alike, you ensure your writing communicates exactly what you intend it to—crucially important whether drafting legal statutes or penning your next hit song where the emotional connection hinges on something as subtle as an apostrophe within lyrics that speak directly to something absent yet palpable.

    Understanding these contraction rules will sharpen your writing skills and enable you to craft messages with greater impact while avoiding common pitfalls that could detract from your message’s clarity and effectiveness.

    3. Omitting Letters and Numbers

    Omitting letters and numbers in writing serves various purposes, from creating abbreviation to capturing the essence of colloquial speech. Understanding when and how to properly use an apostrophe in these situations is essential for clear communication.

    Abbreviating Words

    Omitting Centuries in Years

    When referring to years in abbreviated form, it’s common to drop the first two digits of the century. The apostrophe shows where numerals have been omitted:

    • The '60s (1960s)

    • Class of '99 (1999)

    Shortening Phrases

    Phrases often undergo shortening, especially in informal contexts. For example, "do not" becomes “don't,” with the apostrophe indicating the missing "o."

    "We don’t abbreviate phrases formally but do so often informally."

    Indicating Missing Letters

    Slang and Informal Speech

    In slang or informal language, an apostrophe can indicate dropped letters that mimic natural speech patterns:

    • Gonna (going to)

    • Should’ve (should have)

    This contraction adds a conversational tone to writing:

    "You’re gonna love what’s cookin’!"

    Poetry and Songs

    Poetry and songs frequently use apostrophes for artistic rhythm or emphasis:

    • O’er (over) creates a smoother poetic flow.

    • Lovin’ emphasizes the relaxed nature of a song lyric.

    A well-placed apostrophe can enhance the reader's or listener’s experience by keeping with the intended cadence or mood.

    For Example:

    The classic song lyric "I’m leavin' on a jet plane" employs an apostrophe where the "g" has been dropped, conveying a casual tone that aligns with the song's theme.

    When a word or number is shortened by leaving off one or more characters, an apostrophe marks this omission. A true, left-facing apostrophe like this one: ’ should be used instead of straight quote marks often found on keyboards:

    Typing [Ctrl] plus a quick double-tap on the single-quote key yields this proper punctuation.

    A recent article titled “The commas that cost companies millions” highlighted how crucial punctuation is for clarity—imagine then how omitting letters without proper indication could lead to costly misunderstandings!

    By understanding these rules around omitting letters and numbers with careful use of apostrophes—whether you're condensing dates, abbreviating words, reflecting speech patterns, or crafting poetic lines—you ensure your writing remains both effective and engaging.

    4. Plurals for Letters, Numbers, and Symbols

    Navigating the waters of correct apostrophe usage can be especially challenging when dealing with letters, numbers, and symbols. The key is knowing when their plurals necessitate that telltale punctuation mark.

    When to Use Apostrophes

    Single Letters

    Have you ever tried to discuss grades and found yourself typing "A's" or "B's"? This is a situation where apostrophes are necessary to avoid confusion. For instance:

    • Mind your p's and q's.

    • Dot your i's and cross your t's.

    In these cases, the apostrophe helps maintain clarity—without it, "is" or "as" could be read instead of multiple i’s or a’s.

    Groups of Numbers

    When referring to groups of numbers or making them plural – particularly when they stand alone without any additional context – an apostrophe can assist in conveying the message distinctly:

    • You need more 7’s in your PIN.

    • There are too many 0’s in this document.

    Here, the use of an apostrophe simplifies understanding that we are discussing multiple instances of the numeral itself rather than inadvertently implying a possessive relationship.

    When Not to Use Apostrophes

    Decades and Centuries

    The discussion around decades often sees misplaced apostrophes. The correct way does not include an apostrophe before the s:

    • Roaring 20s

    • Turbulent 60s

    • Swinging 70s

    This rule holds true even when abbreviating decades; remove the first two numerals and retain clarity without an apostrophe: '80s (not '80's).

    Acronyms and Initialisms

    Acronyms (e.g., NASA) and initialisms (e.g., FBI) frequently fall victim to erroneous apostrophe use. These should be kept free from the clutches of unnecessary punctuation in their plural forms:

    • Hundreds of DVDs were on sale.

    • She learned her ABCs at a young age.

    No possession is implied here; we're simply speaking about more than one DVD or multiple letters from the alphabet series known as ABC.

    Takeaway: Apostrophes have no place in plural acronyms or initialisms – adding them only serves to confuse readers by suggesting ownership where none exists.

    By adhering to these guidelines for using (or not using) apostrophes with plurals for letters, numbers, and symbols, writers ensure precision and readability – essential components for effective writing. Straying from these principles might lead readers astray or diminish the professional sheen of your text. Remember that exceptional command over such details distinguishes proficient writers from those less versed in the artistry of punctuation.

    5. Special Cases and Exceptions

    The English language is rife with special cases, and apostrophe usage is no exception. Grappling with possessive pronouns and unique nouns requires a keen understanding of these outliers to ensure grammatical accuracy.

    Possessive Pronouns

    His, Hers, and Its

    Possessive pronouns are self-sufficient—they do not require an apostrophe to demonstrate ownership. For example:

    • This book is his.

    • The choice was entirely hers.

    • The cat licked its paws.

    In each case, the possessive pronoun (his, hers, its) naturally shows possession without the need for additional punctuation.

    Whose vs. Who's

    Confusion often arises between “whose” and “who’s.” Although they sound identical, their meanings are distinct:

    • Whose backpack is this? (possessive form)

    • Who’s going to the concert tonight? (contraction of "who is")

    The apostrophe in "who's" indicates a contracted word rather than possession.

    Unique Nouns

    Names Ending in 's'

    Names that end in "s" can be contentious when it comes to possessive forms. While style guides may differ, one approach suggests adding only an apostrophe after proper names ending in "s":

    • Charles’ new car

    • Dickens’ novels

    This treatment avoids awkward pronunciation and maintains readability.

    Historical and Classical Names

    Historical and classical names often follow their own set of rules concerning possessives. Typically, ancient names ending in “s” take just the apostrophe:

    • Jesus’ teachings

    • Achilles’ heel

    However, modern practice sometimes adds another "s," especially if that's how it would be pronounced:

    • Moses’s staff

    • Xerxes’s army

    Navigating these exceptions demands familiarity with both historical context and contemporary standards.

    Note: Consistency is crucial when dealing with these exceptions—stick to one style throughout your document to maintain clarity for your readers.

    By internalizing these specialized cases around possessive pronouns and peculiar nouns—including those that terminate with an "s"—writers can adeptly sidestep common pitfalls. Regular interaction with various texts will bolster your instinct for correct apostrophe application within these exceptional categories. Whether drafting formal documents or composing creative pieces, proficiency in handling such nuances elevates the quality of your writing.

    Understanding these special cases ensures you won’t fall prey to common missteps. With conscientious practice and attention to detail, wielding apostrophes—even in the trickiest situations—becomes second nature.

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