Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Punctuation Point: The Apostrophe, Beyond the Basics

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. We previously heard from Erin about basic uses of the apostrophe, and now she takes a deeper look at apostrophe usage. You, too, can become an apostrophe superhero!

In "Possessing the Apostrophe," I outlined the three main uses for the apostrophe:

  • It shows possession for a noun.
  • It shows the omission of some letters in a word.
  • It shows plurality of single letters, single numbers, and abbreviations.

We discussed the different cases of using the apostrophe for plural and singular nouns and why pronouns are an exception. Today, I'll review the remaining rules for using the apostrophe to show possession, as well as the rules for showing omission and plurality.

More Cases for Using the Possessive Apostrophe

  • Double possessive (or double genitive): In some cases, use of and apostrophe in same phrase.

    a cousin of Mary's
    a sister of mine

    The double possessive is sometimes seen as a mistake, but it isn't. The usage dates back to Middle English and has become idiomatic.

  • Joint possessive: Use the apostrophe on the last item in a series of elements when the elements own something together.

    Bill and Erin's car (they share one car)
    Bill, Dave, and Tim's father-in-law (they have the same father-in-law)
    Bill's and Erin's cars (they each have a car)

  • Possessives of possessive names: If the name of a company or other thing is already a possessive, you do not need to add another apostrophe s. You can either recast the sentence or use the original possessive name.

    Sean and Duncan love going to Friendly's. Friendly's ice cream is the best, they say.
    Sean and Duncan love going to Friendly's. The ice cream at Friendly's is the best, they say.

  • Possessives of inanimate objects: Despite rumors to the contrary, an inanimate object can form a possessive.

    The car's engine is overheating.
    The laptop's hard drive is fried.

  • Set phrases: A couple of set phrases take an apostrophe s in an idiomatic way.

    father-in-law's truck, not father's-in-law truck
    anyone else's room, not anyone's else room (same holds true for other else phrases)

  • Units of measurement: The unit gets an apostrophe when it is modifies a noun.

    15 years' experience
    two weeks' notice
    5 yards' worth of material

    Note, however, that the phrase 7 months pregnant and the like do not take the apostrophe. In this case, pregnant is an adjective, not a noun, and the phrase means being pregnant for the stated time (e.g., 7 months).

Whew! Now that we have the massive possessive apostrophe out of the way, let's quickly run through the two other apostrophe rules.

The Omission Apostrophe

The apostrophe is also used to make contractions:

The '80s
po' boy

The Plurals Apostrophe

Finally, the apostrophe is sometimes used to make single letters, single numbers, and abbreviations plural:

Sean got all A's on his report card.
Disco was popular in the 1970′s.
The CEO's are meeting after the VP's.

Whether you use the apostrophe to form plurals in these cases depends on your style guide. Here are some of the popular ones:

  • CMS (16th ed.): For capital letters, numerals, and abbreviations, add s; for lowercase letters, add apostrophe s (7.14).
  • AP (2010): For numerals, abbreviations, and multiple letters (e.g., VIP), add s; for single letters, add apostrophe s ("plurals").
  • APA (6th ed.): For single letters numbers, and abbreviations, add s (except for p.; its plural is pp.).
  • NYT Manual of Style (2002): Use apostrophe s to form plurals of single letters, single numbers, and abbreviations.
  • Yahoo: For single letters numbers, and abbreviations, add s, unless the result would be confusing. In which case, use apostrophe s.

But you should never form a plural noun with an apostrophe s:

Wrong: The car's are on the track.
Right: The cars are on the track.

That's it. Did I answer all your questions on the apostrophe? If not, put your concerns in the comments below and I'll try to answer them.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 15th 2010, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
In the UK the plural apostrophe plague is rampant. Everywhere I turn I see potatoe's for sale and clutch's to be repaired until I'm ready to scream with frustration. So much so, in fact, that I begin to wonder whetherthe plural apostrophe is going to win! Ar4 we looking at a bit of grammatical evolution here? These things happen. The old UK working class pronunciation of the letter H as haitch (with anaudible H at the beginning of the word) is now moving up into the middle classes, and I wonder if it will eventually take over, together with the plural apostrophe?

You didn't mention, in your delightful and informative article, the loss of the apostrophe. At least in the UK, many great stores started life with an apostrophe which they have now lost. Boots the Chemist was started by Mr Boot, and was known for many years as Boot's; now it's just plain old Boots. And so with Barclays, Selfridges and Harrods, all of whom have lost their apostrophes.
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 4:29 AM
Comment by: roger E.
Does the possessive apostrophe rule apply to names which end in 's'? as in

'Tony Thomas's new novel' - sometime it is shown as - 'Tony Thomas' new novel'. Your view appreciated.

Roger Elsgood
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Nancy C. (Ware, MA)
Wondering if the possessive rule changes when the proper name ends in an s - for example Chris. Would that be Chris's or Chris'?
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
I'm confused with your examples with regard to numerals.

The '80s
Disco was popular in th 1970's.

Why not:
The '80's
Disco was popular in the 1970s.

I've always been confused about needing 's or just s after the numeral.
Friday September 17th 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nick, thank you for your thoughts -- and the compliment! In the US, too, those apostrophes are rampant. I don't know if this is a shift or not. I wonder, too, the effect professional editing has on slowing down such shifts. Only time will tell. For now, I follow what the authorities say for the most part (there are always exceptions,aren't there?), even if I see the error is rampant. Part of my job is to hold the line on the rules so that the copy is easily understandable.

Roger and Nancy: Thanks for your question. Whether you use an apostrophe s or just an apostrophe with a proper name ending in s will depend on your style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed) would have you do "Thomas's" and "Chris's." The AP Stylebook would have you do "Thomas'" and "Chris'." If you're not governed by a style book, then you should be able to do your preference. But be sure to be consistent within your document.

Winston, thanks for your question. There are two rules at work here. The apostrophe in "'80s" tells you that numbers are missing in front of "80s," that the word is essentially a contraction. I could be wrong, but I don't think there's a style guide that says there are cases not to use an apostrophe in a contraction. So pretty much, if you drop the first two numbers of a year, you need an apostrophe to show that.

The second rule is something that varies in the style books: whether to use an s or an apostrophe s to show that a number is plural. To me, "in the 1970's" doesn't make sense, because you are making "1970" plural, not possessive and I don't like the apostrophe used to make plurals (others disagree, of course). And indeed, many style guides want you to just use the s: "1970s." The New York Times style guide is a notable exception. So NYT style would call for "the '80's" and "the 1970's." Other style books, such as Chicago, would call for "the '80s" and "the 1970s." Does that make sense? If you aren't governed by a style book, then you can go either way, just be consistent in a document.
Friday September 17th 2010, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Winston D.
Thank you, Erin, for the additional info regarding numerals. Then if I am not writing for anything operating under style book "house rules," then I can't be called on the carpet for making a choice as long as I am consistent. At last, a knowledgeable person has pointed out that some of the nitty-gritty of punctuation is NOT carved in stone!
Saturday September 18th 2010, 11:09 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
roger E and Nancy C have spotted the main concern I have with apostrophes: adding s's to proper names ending in s's (or esses to words ending in esses to avoid that issue at least)and was surprised that it wasn't central in the article as Strunk is adamant on the point. He avers that it's Tony Thomas's or Chris's, never the ess-less version. To which Haynes' reply is -- I do not know but as you see, I lean to not bothering adding the ess). Yet,if I verbalize the book owned by Thomas I hear myself saying Thomases, same with Chrises, and any other proper name I can think of. Yet on the printed page I don't see the necessity of adding the "s". And there's another quandry -- did I really need to put that last "s" (and this one) in parens? Shouldn't I have been true to my earlier coda and gone phonetic: ess? TheErn (Haynes -- had you not guessed)
Tuesday September 21st 2010, 11:42 PM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
It is interesting that you defer to style guides. It is quite the right thing to do from a professional point of view but is it from a grammar usage perspective?

I had a difficult situation with the Cox's RIver (an Australian river). The client corrected me and I checked with the Geographical Names Board that specified that the apostrophe not be used even though it was a possessive. My question is, that although they have the bureaucratic right to do so, should we as writers give them that imprimatur?
Wednesday September 22nd 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Madrigal, I do think writers and editors should uphold grammar, usage, spelling, and style rules. When we wish to communicate successfully, we must follow some common rules and guidelines so that everyone understands what is being said.

That said, if it's a proper noun, you must defer to the owner of that name, in this case the Geographical Names Board. It's similar to someone telling you how to spell "Madrigal." It's your name and you can choose how to spell it. The difference here is that since it's a government agency deciding the name and spelling, the community as a whole could demand an official spelling or name change. But to keep variant spellings at bay (and keep everyone from being confused), some agency will have to be the one to record official names and spellings.

We can defer to style guides when choosing between an apostrophe "s" and just an apostrophe, I believe, because the difference is a variation in spelling. The meaning is clear, and there's no pronunciation difference (at least for me).

Does that make sense?
Wednesday September 22nd 2010, 5:25 PM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
Erin, Thanks for your very considered answer. In the case of the Coxs River we have a bureaucracy making a decision against grammar. I suppose it is a matter of making a decision of style over "substance" ie correct usage. I certainly would object to having someone spell Madrigal differently but could not object to Madrigal's plural. I will follow the GNB but thought it a wrong decision.

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