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How to Correctly Use Apostrophes in Your Writing

Debra Chapoton is the author of eleven novels including EDGE OF ESCAPE, THE GIRL IN THE TIME MACHINE, EXODIA, SHELTERED and THE TIME BENDER.

The Use of the Apostrophe (The Apostrophe's Use)

First the Rules then the Rant

The Rules:

Use apostrophes for contractions and showing that letters are missing – Contractions are words like don’t, won’t, haven’t, I’ve and can’t. One or more than one letter is left out and the apostrophe shows that. There are some words that are just missing letters like 'til instead of until or 'cause instead of because.

An apostrophe followed by an s shows possession – John’s book, the men’s room. I will rant below how people most often make mistakes on signs and Christmas letters. My last name is Chapoton, my husband and I are the Chapotons. If my last name already ended in an s or a z or ch then I would add es: one Jones, two Joneses, the Sanchez family or the Sanchezes, Mr. Povich and the Poviches. Now, if I send a card and sign it “From the Chapotons” you’ll notice there is no apostrophe because there is no possession. Sign your cards the Smiths, the Joneses, the Whoevers . But if you mean to show possession as in Come to a barbecue at Debbie’s house, you need the apostrophe and the s. Everything before the apostrophe is the possessor, that is, the house belongs to . . . what’s before the apostrophe? . . . Debbie. The tricky part is when a word is plural like Come to a barbecue at the Chapotons’. You’re thinking why is it s’ instead of ’s . It’s really not. The word was plural – the house belongs to the Chapotons. Because you would not say Chapotons’s that last s is dropped or erased because it is not said. In other words, always add ’s to show possession and if you don’t pronounce the s after the apostrophe you must erase it. So now the sign at your cottage should read The Dicksons’ (meaning the place belongs to two or more people named Dickson) or The Dicksons, (just naming the occupants), or Dickson (just announcing the last name, a good option if a single lady lives there), but not The Dickson’s unless the place belongs to The Dickson – one person whose first name apparently is “The.”

Don’t use apostrophes for making plurals (except for a few exceptions like numbers, symbols, letters and “words:” There are two 6’s, four &’s, seven A’s and twelve and’s in the paragraph.) I will rant about this, too. Don’t use apostrophes to make words plural. Just don’t do it. It is acceptable to write 1970s or 1970’s so when in doubt, leave it out.

If you are still confused about signing your Christmas cards or having your name printed on your front doormat – just write your first and last name & family on the cards and just your last name on your door mat, mailbox, or cottage sign.

The Rant:

I am not that old English teacher who carries a red pen and corrects bulletins, brochures and menus. However, I have surreptitiously made corrections on restaurant menu boards (like erasing the “e” on “potatoe”) and even used my fingernail to scrape off a few misused apostrophes from metal signs (they had “dog’s must be on a leash in these area’s” – I couldn’t leave it uncorrected, it was near a school).

My biggest pet peeve is the misuse of the apostrophe. Apparently teachers have had to drop that lesson from their plans, probably because they’re asked to do so many non-teaching things. (I know, I taught for many, many years.)

We tried a new restaurant recently and I was impressed that the menu only had two apostrophe errors. One was in a category heading: Sandwiches, Pita’s, Salads. Well, someone got sandwiches and salads right, but thought that (maybe because it’s a foreign word) they needed to use an apostrophe to pluralize pita. Wrong. The plural of pita is pitas. I’ve noticed that a lot in other restaurants, especially with the word tacos (and they don’t even have an apostrophe in Spanish!)

When I had English classes I taught eleven rules of plurals and the only rule that includes an apostrophe is for pluralizing numbers, letters, symbols and words (used as words). Examples: The 1990’s were good years. Cross your t’s and dot your i’s. She wrote &’s instead of and’s. This particular rule is changing as language is always in flux. Many experts now say you can leave out the apostrophe in these cases. Check the current manuals. That’s it for using apostrophes for plurals.

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I live in a vacation haven of cabins and lake houses where people name their retreats (like us at Big Pine Lodge) or at least identify them with their last name. The Smith’s Retreat. . . The Jones’ Cabin . . . Chris’ Place. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You show possession with an apostrophe s (and sometimes you drop the s – see rules above). Whatever is in front of the apostrophe is the possessor: The Smith’s Retreat = the retreat of The Smith, The Jones’ cabin = the cabin of The Jones (hmm, is that a basketball Jones?). Obviously that’s not what they meant. If it’s the retreat of the Smiths then the sign should say The Smiths’ Retreat (dropping the last s) and since the Joneses (plural) are the owners of their cottage their sign should say The Joneses’ Cabin. Chris owns his own resort and should call it Chris’s Place (you pronounce it and don’t need to drop the s here). They can sign their Christmas cards The Smiths, The Joneses or The Jones Family.

Is it the boy’s games or the boys’ games? Both are correct, but the first one means the games belong to one boy. Lady’s room or ladies’ room? Think about it, is the room for lady or ladies?

ONE LAST THING: Television gets it wrong a lot! You'll see captions on reality shows identifying people as Chris' mom or Alex' dad. THOSE ARE WRONG. It is Chris's mom and Alex's dad.

copyright 2010 by Debra Chapoton

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Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 31, 2014:

This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, I can easily describe it as amazing.

I loved every word. Graphics were superb. This hub was helpful, informative and I found it very interesting.

Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

I love word-play. Words with entirely different meanings, but sound the same. There is IDLE worship in church and there is IDOL worship also in the greedy society of today.

You have such a gift for writing. Keep writing no matter what.


Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

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