Monday, February 20, 2012

Apostrophes are easy: a three-minute lesson

You wouldn't know it from reading blog comments or grocery store signs, but you know what? Using apostrophes correctly is really, really easy. Here's a three-minute lesson that will turn you into an apostrophe expert for life.

Rule 1. Never use an apostrophe to make a word plural. Never! No exceptions. Not even if the word ends in a vowel. The plural of apostrophe is apostrophes. The plural of 1920 is 1920s. The plural of LCD is LCDs. The plural of do is dos. Really.
   Corollary: Do use an apostrophe to make a single letter of the alphabet plural. Example: There are two p's, four i's, and four s's in Mississippi.
  No to words, yes to letters.

Rule 2. Use an apostrophe to replace the missing letter(s) in contractions. Most of us don't have too much trouble with this one. We know how to spell words like I'll, he'd, can't, shouldn't, it's (meaning it is).
   Put Rule 1 with Rule 2, and you become one of the few people in the United States who know how to spell dos and don'ts.

Rule 3. Use an apostrophe to make a noun possessive. Put it immediately after the noun that tells who is doing the possessing. (If you're not sure, just turn the phrase around and you'll instantly see where the apostrophe goes.) Examples:
  • the boy's dog = the dog that belongs to the boy
  • the boys' dog = the dog that belongs to the boys
  • the Smiths' house = the house that belongs to the Smiths
  • the smith's house = the house that belongs to the smith (would he be a blacksmith, perhaps?)
  • the woman's room = the room belonging to the woman
  • the women's room = the room intended for women (since the word womens doesn't exist, there is no reason to put the apostrophe anywhere else)
  • the newspaper's reputation = the reputation of the newspaper
  • the newspapers' reputation = the reputation of the newspapers
   Corollary: Never use an apostrophe to make a pronoun possessive. Not even if the pronoun is it. Examples:
  • his dog = the dog that belongs to him
  • their house = the house that belongs to them
  • her room = the room that belongs to her
  • its reputation = the reputation that belongs to it
OK, you're an apostrophe expert now. How hard was that?

If you want to debate the fine points, you can always discuss what to do with words that end in s or z. Is it Jesus' name or Jesus's name? Thomas' car or Thomas's car? Style books differ. But notice that the apostrophe still follows Rule 3 above: it still comes immediately after the noun that describes who owns the name (Jesus) or the car (Thomas).


Randy Limbird said...

All the above I understand and use. The area that troubles me is how to use the possessive after a non-plural noun that ends with s. Jesus's life or Jesus' life? Charles' business or Charles' business? The mistress's name or the the mistress' name? I think the standard position was to use 's in almost all cases, but I don't see the compelling reason for that rule versus the alternative of just using the apostrophe.

LaVonne Neff said...

Good question, Randy. Style manuals differ, though they are coming around to using 's in nearly all cases. Easiest way to decide: let pronunciation be your guide. People generally say Charles's and mistress's, but in Jesus' name is still more common than in Jesus's name.

Thomas said...

How do you refer to more than one person with a last name ending in s. Would the Jones family be the Joneses or the Jones'?

LaVonne Neff said...

Thomas, if the noun is not possessive, it's the Joneses ("the Joneses live in a big house" - see Rule 1 above). If the noun is possessive, it's the Jones's ("here we are at the Jones's [house]" - see Rule 3). It can be confusing, since we often leave out the word "house" and thus may not realize that the Joneses have become possessive. If in doubt, try inserting "house" and see if your sentence still makes sense.

LaVonne Neff said...

Years later, rereading my answer to Thomas - I see that I was so wrong. And it's so easy to be right. It should be "the Joneses' house"--i.e., the house that belongs to the Joneses. If the house belongs to only one person named Jones, you wouldn't use "the." You would say "Here we are at Jones's house"--i.e., the house that belongs to Jones. As I explained in the blogpost, this is EXTREMELY EASY to figure out (just turn the sentence around so you know whether the house belongs to Jones or to the Joneses, and put the apostrophe right after whoever it belongs to). So I am EXTREMELY EMBARRASSED that I did it wrong. Please, people, do it right, and feel superior to me.

LaVonne Neff said...

And for the purists: yes, I know that should have been "whomever."