Abused Apostrophes


Recently, a Mallard Fillmore comic strip covered the subject of abused apostrophes. “An epidemic’s on the loose: chronic apostrophe abuse . . . Apostrophes do not belong on every word that ends in ‘s’! That’s just an apostrophic mess!

“Apostrophes are, without doubt, used when you leave a letter out . . . or, if you want to show possession. That’s it. That’s all. End of lesson.”

Don’t we wish it were that simple?

Test yourself.

How many abused apostrophes can you find in these sentences? Circle every one that should not be there.

1. Trying to keep up with the Jones’s is foolish.
2. We were happy when we read John Dubois’ article in the magazine. 3. The Williamses’s daughter is getting married soon.
4. Brenna is a member of the graduating class of ‘05.
5. James’s and John’s mother asked Jesus for a special favor.
6. James and John’s shoes were covered with mud.
7. Jeri learned her ABC’s when she was three years old.
8. Mind your ps and qs.

(Unless otherwise stated, the following rules were taken from The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition.)

All of the above sentences have apostrophe abuse problems.

1. Rule: “An apostrophe is never used to form the plural of a family name.” Correct: Trying to keep up with the Joneses is foolish.

2. Rule: “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s.” Correct: We were happy when we read John Dubois’s article in the magazine.

• Exception to the rule from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: “Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending in ‐es and ‐is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Moses’ Laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by the laws of Moses the temple of Isis”

3. Rule: “The possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) [is formed] by adding an apostrophe only.”
Correct: The Williamses’ daughter is getting married soon.

4. Rule: “In informal contexts the first two digits of a particular year are often replaced by an apostrophe (not an opening single quotation mark).”
The example is incorrect because an opening single quotation mark is used. An opening quotation mark (single or double) turns toward the letter following it. A closing quotation mark turns toward the letter preceding it.

  • “Did he say ‘I don’t know’?”
  • An apostrophe is always a single closing quotation mark—turned toward the letter preceding it (e.g., it’s, can’t, Mary’s).

When typing ‘05, the computer automatically inserts an opening quotation mark, assuming you are starting a new quotation. The best way I know to deal with this is to type an opening quotation mark (single or plural) at the beginning of the word or term where you need a closing quotation mark. Then, immediately type another quotation mark; it will be a closing quotation mark. Use the back arrow to move the cursor to the first quotation mark and delete it; the closing mark will remain in the place where it is needed, such as: ’05.

  • If you know a simpler way, please let us know.

5. Rule: “Closely linked nouns are considered a single unit in forming the possessive when the entity ‘possessed’ is the same for both; only the second element takes the possessive form.” Since James and John have the same mother, only John is possessive.

  • Correct: James and John’s mother asked Jesus for a special favor.

6. Rule: “When the entities are different, both nouns take the possessive form.” James and John do not share shoes, so both take the possessive form.
Correct: James’s and John’s shoes were covered with mud.

7. Rule: “Capital letters used as words, abbreviations that contain no interior periods, and numerals used as nouns form the plural by adding s.”
Correct: Jeri learned her ABCs when she was three years old.

8. Rule: “To avoid confusion, the plural of single lowercase letters is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s. The s is Roman [plain font] even when the letter is italic.”
Correct: Mind your p’s and q’s.

There are many more rules regarding use of the apostrophe, but these will give you a good basic understanding.

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