Apostrophes have two jobs:
- to indicate that letters have deliberately been left out of a word (contractions, dialects and slang) and
- to show possession or ownership.
Rarely, an apostrophe may be used to form plurals of words that are not nouns.
- “he” > “his”
- “we” > “our”
- “they” > “their”
- “it” > “its”
- The dog chased its ball around the yard.
- Your dress is losing its hem.
Examples: (‘it’s” = contraction, letter left out)
- It’s my football!
- It’s a beautiful day.
- She’s leaving because it’s raining.
- Whenever our team wins, it’s a good day!
The problem is logical, because the apostrophe does both jobs. It’s just that in this case, it can only do one job, not both. Think of the apostrophe as the dot for the “i” that disappeared.
- it is = it’s
- cannot = can’t
- do not = don’t
- we will = we’ll
Examples in sentences:
- They’ve come home early.
- There’s going to be a big storm.
- Commas are obnoxious, aren’t they?
- He’d’ve (he would have) left earlier if she’d’a (she would have) told him about the storm.
- We couldn’t’ve (could not have) known a hurricane was coming.
Such contractions should be used sparingly. Readers are not used to seeing them.
Possession comes in many forms in the English language.
Apostrophe Plus S
Singular nouns which form their plurals by adding “s” or “es” form their possessive by adding apostrophe plus “s.”
- The cat’s meow woke him in the middle of the night.
- The knight’s horse stumbled just as they approached the dragon.
- The centerpiece of Miss Hunnicutt’s hat was a live chicken.
Singular nouns ending in a sound similar to but not an “s” (“-ce,” “-x,” “-z”) also form their possessive with an apostrophe plus “s.”
- The prince’s horse lost its shoe.
- He lifted the box’s lid, and the toy soldier fell out.
- The quiz’s answers were all scrambled.
- The soldiers all stood up straight for appearance’s sake.
- The ox’s pace was too slow to keep up with the horse.
Singular nouns ending in “s” only add an apostrophe (no “s”).
- Nobody can find the princess’ saxophone.
- He was the toughest army corps’ sergeant.
- Nobody could find the actress’ slipper.
- Would you please shine Andres’ shoes?
Plural nouns not ending in “s”
Normally, possession for plural nouns not ending in “s” is the same as for singular nouns, adding an apostrophe and “s” to the end of the word.
- The men’s mustaches were all different.
- Mother spent three hours picking up the children’s toys.
- Pioneers stuffed their quilts with their geese’s feathers.
- Lucy spent a week sewing the women’s dresses.
- The cat sat next to the traps with the mice’s cheese.
Most plural nouns end in “s.” Only add an apostrophe without the “s.” It sounds the same as the plural, but with a noun after it, the listener will understand.
- It doesn’t take long to fill three cats’ litter box.
- Don’t go up there near the snakes’ den.
- The horses’ saddles all needed to be dusted after the drive on the dirt road.
- Ladies’ dresses are not common in my closet.
Plural names ending in “s,” “z,” or soft “ch”
The plural of names (people or places) ending in “s” or “z” or the soft “ch” offers another problem.
If we refer to the entire family by their last name, we would add “es” to indicate more than one person. Adding apostrophe plus “s” makes three “es” sounds in a row. (I would recommend against naming your characters with such names!)
Some of these sound better than others. There is no hard-and-fast rule. Again, be consistent.
- The Edwardses’ mansion
- The Joneses’ daughter
- The Lopezes’ history
- The Larches’ hot air balloon
- The Edwardses’s mansion
- The Joneses’s daughter
- The Lopezes’s history
- The Larches’s hot air balloon
Plural owners of the same object
When an object has two or more owners listed by name or are normally seen as a single unit, the apostrophe follows only the second name.
- Joe and Martina’s wedding took place in the woods behind the church.
- (Joe and Martina are married)
- Tammy and Sally’s brother loved to tease them.
- (Tammy and Sally are sisters)
- my mother and father’s car
- (my mother and my father = my parents)
Plural owners of different objects
If they each own a separate object, both owners are listed as possessive and the object is written as plural.
- Joe’s and Martina’s weddings were held on separate days.
- (not to each other)
- Tammy’s and Sally’s brothers are both named Joseph.
- (not sisters, they do not have the same brothers)
- my mother’s and my father’s cars
- (they each have their own car)
Plural owners of the same object, one of them a pronoun
If one of the owners is listed as a pronoun, use the possessive adjective for the pronoun and the appropriate possessive form for the named owner.
- Martina and his wedding took place in the woods behind the church.
- (Martina and he are married)
- Michael and her brother loved to tease them.
- (Michael and she share a brother)
- Mother and his car broke down on the highway.
- (Mother and Father were in their car.
Slang or dialectal speech
- “When’s Bill comin’?”
- “He’s leavin’ soon.”
- “I’m hoping’ so.”
Plural of non-noun words
Choose the one which seems the clearest to the reader, but then be consistent.
- In his box of 64 colors, he found four blues.
- In his box of 64 colors, he found four blue’s.
- At the contest, four people received firsts for their quilts.
- At the contest, four people received first’s for their quilts.
- Back in the early 1940s, gasoline was rationed.
- Back in the early 1940’s, gasoline was rationed.
For a word used out of context (and in quotation marks), the easy was is to make the plural with an apostrophe and “s,” both before the closing quotation mark.
- He was tired of all her “maybe’s.”
- How many “not applicable’s” did she include on her application?
- Yes, “misspelled” has two “s’s,” one for the prefix “mis” and one for “spelled.”
- Are there long words other than “abracadabra” that have no vowels other than “a’s”?