Thursday, March 23, 2017

Editor's Notes #29: Apostrophes v. Plurals

I think apostrophe placement is sort of like spelling: you either have the gift of it or you don't. This is not to say it can't be learned, but let's face facts and say that most people who don't "have it" will probably struggle their entire lives with whether or not to use one—and if so, how.

Here's the basic rule:
The apostrophe's primary job is to form a possessive
to stand for missing letters in a contraction.
Why do so many people get it wrong?

I firmly believe—and this is based on zero scientific evidence, mind you, but you are likely to agree with me here—people who misuse apostrophes figure they're going to add a little flair to their words to . . . "fancy it up," so to speak, in the same way some try to speak more formally by using the word "I" instead of "me" in their sentences, regardless of whether it's correct or not. This usually results in such conversation as, "It's been a splendid time in Paris for her and I." The written equivalent for these fancified people would be something like We drank many fine wine's and went on numerous tour's.

While looking up information on this phenomenon, I saw it mentioned as the "greengrocer's apostrophe" more than once. (Picture BANANA'S on sale.) Perhaps grocery stores are the ones who made the error commonplace for so many others, because many people are under the assumption that any printing posted for public use is automatically correct. Many of us can attest to this being false as we look around our cities and towns and shake our heads in dismay. My city, in fact, has a bar which advertises itself as YOU'RE NUMBER ONE NIGHT SPOT, right up there on an expensive, lighted sign for all to see. Well, I'm flattered, but I was unaware that I was the number one night spot. Don't tell my husband.

We can't base our apostrophe use on things like "I think it looks good" or "it seems to me that I've seen it this way" when we should be weighing in with the "because it's correct" factor. There are hard and fast rules that need to be followed.

  • When forming a possessive, the apostrophe goes at the end of a noun, followed by the letter "s":
    • The girl's coat fell to the floor. [One girl, one coat.]
  • If the possessive is a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the "s":
    • The girls' coats fell to the floor. [More than one girl, more than one coat. Notice that "coats" is a plural and has no apostrophe.]
  • When forming a contraction, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters:
    • The girl's coat's dirty from falling on the floor. [One girl, one coat, and the apostrophe is used in the contraction for "coat is" dirty.]
  • Or how about this?
    • The girls' coats' mud was falling off in clumps. [This is a ridiculous sentence, although it is technically correct. More than one girl, more than one coat, and the mud that belongs to the coat. You're best off rephrasing the entire thing for clarity.]
  • Never use an apostrophe for a plural, especially when dealing with abbreviations or numbers:
    • The 1920s were a roaring good time for all. [All the years included in that decade.]
    • There were so many CDs to choose from and only so much cash in his wallet. [It bears noting that Blogger keeps trying to force me to put an apostrophe here, much in the same way MS Word will "correct" your grammar to the point of gibberish. But that's for a future post.]
  • Feel free to use an apostrophe with numbers or abbreviations if they're possessive:
    • The DJ's speakers had too much high end, making them painful to listen to. [The speakers belonging to the DJ.]
    • I have to say, 1987's recording artists were a mixed lot. [The recording artists "belonging to" the year 1987.]
  • Also feel free to use an apostrophe with numbers or abbreviations if they're part of a contraction:
    • The DMV's known for taking some awful photos. [Used here for "DMV is."]
    • Overall, 1989's a year I'll never forget. [Used here for "1989 is."]
  • There are some tricky areas, though, and here's where a nice, thick Chicago Manual of Style comes in handy:
    • No apostrophe is needed in the word "how-tos," even though, once again, Blogger and MS Word will try to tell you otherwise.
    • No apostrophe is needed in the phrase "dos and don'ts" other than the apostrophe in the contraction for "do not."
    • No apostrophe is needed for "ins and outs" and other similar phrases.
  • Aaaaaaaannnnnd it would not be the English language if there were not exceptions to the rule that seem completely in opposition, such as this gem:
    • It's = it is. Simple enough, because it's a contraction. But . . . 
    • Its = the possessive form of "it." A possessive which does NOT use an apostrophe, which seems to fly in the face of all we've been talking about. Just memorize it and you'll be fine.

Use these examples the next time you're in need of a little help when using apostrophes and plurals, and anyone who reads your writing (including your editor) will mentally shoot you some instant credibility for your diligent work—and a huge "thank you."

Happy writing!


  1. Wow. So many great points (not "point's") in this post, I can't comment on them all!

    Making a word plural by placing an apostrophe before the "S" is so common now, I'm waiting for the dictionaries to say that's accepted, just like we can now officially use "literally" to mean "figuratively," and use "infer" and "imply" interchangeably.

    It also drives me nuts when someone puts an apostrophe in the wrong place when using a contraction. (Examples? "Do'nt" and "ca'nt!")

    1. And I'm always seeing people write things like "the 60's" rather than "the '60s."

    2. You've hit upon one of my worst fears: that it will indeed become so commonplace that it will be deemed "okay" because saying so is the path of least resistance. I am still irked by the literally/figuratively thing, as well as infer/imply. Sorry, folks, but those words do not mean the same thing, no matter how much you twist it.

      Things like "the 60's" have always bothered me, even as a young person. I couldn't understand why people didn't see that didn't make sense. Those are some of the first things I look for during edits, as a result.

      And putting the apostrophe in the wrong place always makes me think of fantasy fiction writers who throw apostrophes all over the place without pattern or sense, just to make a name sound exotic. How 'bout that, Sil'ver F'ox? Do you feel more special now?

    3. I'll forgive you for the "Sil'ver F'ox" thing because you used the apostrophe in "'bout" correctly. :)

  2. Good to know I have it and get it when it comes to apostrophes.

    1. That's a huge blessing to your writing and your editor as well!

  3. I'm quite the night spot, baby.


    1. I've heard that . . . word on the street and all . . .

  4. You know? This was a fantastic topic! Since we're all wired differently, and these punctuation rules don't come easy to many of us, your tips are appreciated. Love the way you broke it down, it's easy and simple to understand. Okay, I'm gonna say it: you rock! Although, objectively, I'll also say your sidekick rocks too :P

    A bookmark-worthy post for sure!

    S.Katherine Anthony <3

    1. If it weren't for my faithful sidekick, this post would have been rambling and full of my favorite word, so I'm going to agree: my sidekick rocks for sure! And thanks, S.K., for sharing it! Just one more factor in your rockability (not to be confused with rockabilly, since we all know your musical . . . skills . . . are unparalleled and not to be spoken of).

  5. Ha! Is it bad that as writers first and beer drinkers second, that we could never walk into a bar that proclaimed 'YOU'RE NUMBER ONE NIGHT SPOT', regardless of how good the beer is?

    (Side note: I almost wanted to type that comment out as 'Is it bad that as writer's first and beer drinker's second...', but I didn't want to put you through any more torture)

    You know what absolutely boggles my mind about all of this, though? You would think that its and it's would be the most confusing and therefore most abused, since its pretty much spits in the face of the regular possessive. But that's not the one I see abused most. You don't know how many times I've seen sentences typed like this...

    As beer drinker's, our favorite is the IPA, as we're big fans of its hoppy flavor.

    So... you got the confusing one right, but butchered the easy one that you probably should have known since 3rd grade?

    1. I am right there with you on the bar boycott because of spelling and punctuation. I can't even force myself to "like" something funny on facebook if it has a misspelling or a grammar error. It's the principle of the thing.

      Oh, and I forgot to address your mention (in the previous post's comment, of course, because I have to go line by line and answer as if we were sitting at a table together) about my blog posts not showing up in your feed anymore. I have NO idea how to remedy that, and I'm not going to pay to boost my posts for a blog that doesn't directly make me money. It drives me crazy that I have a certain number of "followers" and yet only a fraction of those people see my posts . . . and out of that fraction, yet another fraction will actually look at them willingly and read.

      I need a gimmick, I think . . . I was considering taking an alcoholic beverage into the shower and drawing cartoons about it. Editing cartoons, of course. I wouldn't want to steal anyone's ideas. But first, I need to learn how to draw. And to be funny in a short number of sentences. And to drink while showering, probably. I'm thinking that might be a skill that will help. Maybe I should work on that first.


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