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."