4/11/2016

Apostrophe Dos and Don'ts

One of my greatest fears is that one day the plural apostrophe ("Take off your hat's and coat's.") will become accepted standard usage. The error is so widespread on the internet and in the real world that I fear the sheer volume of uncorrected uses will eventually lead to a change in official position, as it did for the new definition of the word literally: "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true" (Google). Language is fluid and occasionally arbitrary, and the rules seek to reflect genuine usage, so the plural apostrophe may have its day. If it does, we will no longer be able to tell plurals and possessives apart--which is why we invented apostrophes--and I will probably take my own life.

I bet Zappa has an opinion on this subject. And he's
probably right. I mean, look at that mustache.
Apostrophes confuse a lot of people. I'm one of them. The title of this page is a peculiar and confusing case in itself: most writers have an urge to put an apostrophe in the plural of "do" in order to avoid confusion, but the word "don't" already has an apostrophe in it. So should we write it do's and don't's? Or dos and don'ts? Or should we be inconsistent with apostrophe use, and write it do's and don'ts? Thankfully, the wise and oracular Grammar Girl has already weighed in on this subject. She's the final authority for me, and it's her recommended usage you see at the top of this page. When I read it, I can't help but think of an early text-based computer operating system, but hey, sometimes you just have to pick a rule and go with it.

In the spirit of keeping written English sane and sensible, I present the best list of apostrophe rules I could come up with. Keep in mind that some of these rules are not universally agreed upon. In fact, I'm not even consistent with which style guide I follow. I follow the rule that makes the most sense to me logically, and I respectfully submit them for your perusal.

Do

  • Use apostrophes in contractions: Can't, won't, I'll. This is the reason we invented apostrophes: to stand in for omitted letters. Be careful though, not to overuse ugly, non-standard contractions in order to capture the rhythm of speech; "This's Bill." (which sounds identical to "This is Bill."), or "Bill'll get you fixed up." Phrases like this may make sense in speech, but they're horrid to look at on the page.
    • Use apostrophes for omitted numbers as well: the '60s. Notice, however, that the apostrophe is not placed between the 0 and the s. The apostrophe stands in for the 1 and the 9, but putting it between the 0 and the s make the word possessive, which is not what you want,
  • Use an apostrophe and and s for possessive nouns: Sally's car, the company's building, the constable's billy club. The other reason we invented apostrophes.
    • If two people own something jointly, only the last one needs and apostrophe: "Bill and Joan's house is for sale."
    • If each person has their own thing, both take apostrophes: "Bill's and Joan's cars are brand new." [While correct, I find this phrasing awkward. I would probably rephrase to simply say "Bill and Joan have new cars" or "Their cars are new."]
    • If you substitute a pronoun for one person, it needs to be possessive: "My and Joan's son is going to Stanford" [Again, correct, but awkward, I'd prefer "Our son is going to Stanford."]
  • Use an apostrophe and an s for possessive singular nouns, even if the word itself ends with an s: Marcus's favorite bar, Kansas's new statute. [William Strunk Jr. is with me on this one. Grammar Girl is not, although she does point out that it's simply a matter of which style guide you refer to. This is one of the few cases where I deviate from Grammar Girl, and here's why: using the extra s gives you an easy way to distinguish between nouns that happen to end in s, and plural nouns, as in the next rule.]
  • Use an apostrophe without an s to indicate possession for plural nouns ending in sMy parents' house, the Jones' pool party, Ladies' night at the dance club.
  • Use an apostrophe and an s to indicate possession for plural nouns that do not end in sThe children's table, the geese's habitat.
  • Some phrases are tricky: For example, "For goodness' sake" takes an apostrophe. But think about it. In this case "goodness" is used like a possessive noun. Whose sake? Goodness' sake. Another sticky spot is the American holiday Veterans Day. The official, government mandated spelling does not have an apostrophe, even though it is a day to celebrate all veterans' sacrifice (notice the apostrophe following the plural s). If in doubt, check the official spelling.
  • Use apostrophes to pluralize single letters: This only happens when you are referring to the letter itself: "This word has too many e's." "Dot the i's and cross the t's." This rule is especially important when writing about a's, i's and u's, because it helps avoid confusion with actual words.
  • Use apostrophes to pluralize numbers: 1's and 2's. This is essentially the same rule as above, and feel free to use it when referring to the actual numerals. But in my writing I always write out any number, plural or singular, that can be written in four words or fewer. So I would write "ones and twos" instead of 1's and 2's. [For more on this, check out my article on numbers]
  • Use apostrophes for quotes within quotes. "I heard him say 'Sherry got a nose job' over at the bar." This goes for scare quotes (sarcastic quote marks) within dialogue as well: "Yeah, I was upstairs 'doing my homework.' " [Technically, for quotes within quotes you're supposed to use a single quotation mark (according to Grammar Girl), which apparently is a thing, and is distinct from an apostrophe. But I've used dozens of keyboards in my life and I've never seen a single quotation mark on any of them--just a plain ol' apostrophe (that little mark under the tilde on the top left of your keyboard is not a single quote, it's a grave accent, and I have no idea what its for). Personally I don't use smart quotes in my writing, so there's no distinction between open quotes and end quotes, and the apostrophe is just a little straight line. So visually there's no difference. For a more detailed look at quotes within quotes, check out this article on Grammar Book.]
  • Use apostrophes to form the past tense and participle of verbed acronyms: Occasionally, it is acceptable to form a verb out of an acronym, and if you need to use the past tense or participle form of such a verb, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends an apostrophe: "He's OD'ing!" (participle) "He OD'd" (past tense). This is especially helpful when writing jargon: "Have you MAC'd that widget?" One common abuse of this rule is to say someone "OK'd" something, but I personally find "OK" to be an abomination in fiction. The word is "okay", and "okayed" looks just fine to me. I'm not above writing "OK" when I'm texting my wife; after all brevity is the soul of the text message. But in fiction, I take a few more pains to use words correctly, and "okay" will always look better. And it's not like anyone is charging you by the letter, so there's no reason to omit the "ay".
  • Use apostrophes in the official transliterations of foreign language: Apostrophes are often used to aid pronunciation in official anglicized versions of foreign words. The best example I know is "l'chaim", a Hebrew word for toasting and celebrating. In these cases, there is always an official position for the apostrophe, so it can be thought of more like a letter. "60's" is a punctuation error. "lchaim" is a spelling error.

Don't

  • Don't use apostrophes to indicate plurals. I have actually rejected prospective editing clients based solely on this rule. I figure if they don't know this, there is probably a lot more they don't know, and I don't charge enough to teach them.
    • WRONG: "We're going to look at a few house's today."
    • RIGHT: "We're going to look at a few houses today."
  • Don't use apostrophes for emphasis. I'm not sure where this error came from, but I'm guessing it's an over-extension of scare quotes. However it came to be, we need to take it out back and shoot it.
    • WRONG: Who is that 'radiant' young woman?
    • RIGHT: Who is that radiant young woman?
  • Don't use apostrophes to pluralize acronyms. This is another gray area, and the correct usage depends on what style manual you prefer. In some manuals, the apostrophe is considered correct because it stands in for missing letters, just as it does in contractions; CD's is short for compact discs, and the apostrophe denotes those missing letters. I, however, prefer to skip the apostrophe in this case, because you can't put one in for every chunk of missing letters, and the rule of capitalizing acronyms makes it easy to distinguish between CDs (compact discs), and CDS (credit default swap), so the apostrophe does not serve the same purpose it does for single letters.
    • WRONG: CD's, DVD's. 
    • RIGHT: CDs, DVDs
  • Don't use apostrophes to pluralize decades or centuries. Interestingly, Blogger's built-in spell check seems to disagree with this rule and the previous one. I'm getting a squiggly red underline as I type the correct words. This, if anything should indicate that these rules are not set in stone. That said, The Chicago Manual of Style backs me up on this one. The important thing is to pick whichever rule makes the most sense for the type of writing you're doing and be consistent.
    • WRONG: 1960's, the early 1900's
    • RIGHT: 1960s, the early 1900s
    • [As I stated above, you should use an apostrophe to stand in for the missing numbers when you abbreviate decades, but it should not go between the 0 and the s. '60s is correct, although as I point out in my article on numbers, I prefer to write decades out: Sixties.]
  • Don't use apostrophes in possessive pronouns. Pronouns have their own form to indicate possession; we write hishers, and theirs instead of him'sher's, and they's (using words like that to capture dialect might be okay in moderation, but overuse will make you look stupid).
    • The difference between its and it's is a confusing case for many. I myself struggled with it for years, and I still slip up on occasion. The possessive form of the pronoun it contains the same letters as the contraction for "it is", but remember, possessive pronouns never take apostrophes. Contractions always do.
    • Lets and let's is another tough one for most people, including myself. Lets is a present-progressive verb: "He lets me sit up front." It indicates an ongoing state of allowance. Let's is a contraction of "let us": "Let's go to the store." Remember, contractions always take apostrophes. And present-tense verbs don't need them!

Maybe Sometimes

  • Use apostrophes to capture dialect sparingly. "I's talkin' to him, but he ain't listen." Using this device too much makes your writing hard to read, and I generally frown upon phonetic spelling of dialect, but sometimes it works. If you're writing period fiction, it may even be necessary, as apostrophes were much more common before spelling was as standardized as it is today. Just be sure not to overdo it, or readers will have to work so hard to understand what you're saying they won't have any attention left for your story.

Any other odd apostrophe situations I didn't cover? Any rules you disagree with? Let me know in the comments below!