Avoiding apostrophe catastrophes

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Apostrophe misuse is so rampant nowadays that it has become the subject of comic strips and memes. However, just because something is misused widely doesn’t mean it’s okay to follow suit, especially when your reputation might be at stake. But, why do apostrophes cause us so much trouble? And, what strategies or tricks can you use to avoid suffering your own apostrophe catastrophe?

I believe a lot of the confusion surrounding the apostrophe can be blamed on the its versus it’s scenario. What, indeed, were grammarians thinking, when they agreed it was okay to use the same symbol to represent both ownership of something and missing letters in a word that’s been shortened? And, it doesn’t help that the apostrophe also doubles as a closing, single quotation mark and can be used to indicate plurals of numbers, letters and symbols as in 100’s, A’s and $’s, but not things like CDs or IOUs.

As well as suffering from a multiple personality disorder, apostrophes are tricky little things to get right even when you use them in the correct context. I’m referring here to the problem of where to place an apostrophe to indicate possession for a singular noun ending in the letter s. Some style manuals say it is perfectly fine to write Bridget Jones’ Diary, while most will insist Bridget Jones’s Diary is more correct, which incidentally, is what the movie’s makers opted for in the end.

I can see no simple way around the problem of apostrophe misuse, other than to learn the basic rules, together with the key exceptions, which are as follows:

  • Although an apostrophe can ordinarily be used to show possession, the one exception is the word its. Remember, it’s always means it is, whereas its denotes belonging to something.

  • Apostrophes don't make something plural – the exceptions being the marking of plurals of individual numbers, letters and symbols (e.g. 1000’s, p’s, #’s, etc.)

  • To show something belongs to a singular noun, add ’s to it, regardless if it ends in s (e.g., an albatross’s wingspan is vast). However, note, some style manuals do allow you inexplicably to drop the s (e.g., an albatross’ wingspan is broad)

  • To show something belongs to a plural noun, add ’s (e.g., diamonds are a girl’s best friend) or if the noun already ends in s, add the apostrophe only (e.g., it was a great girls’ night out)

  • If the sentence has a double subject, add the possessive apostrophe to the second subject only (e.g., I worked on Tom and Jerry’s car). However, note, when the ownership is separate the standard rule applies (e.g., I worked on Tom’s and Jerry’s cars)

Safe and happy apostrophising everybody!