End Apostrophe Abuse

We feel sorry for the little apostrophe. It is so abused, so often made to do what it shouldn’t, and so often forgotten when needed. The apostrophe is a proud punctuation mark with specific purposes and does not deserve to be misused.

Again and again we see the same two abuses of this punctuation mark, not just in the pieces we edit but all around us in the “real” world. We’ll discuss two of those abuses here, and we’ll hope to restore some of the respect the apostrophe deserves.

nobleapostrophe3Abuse #1: Plurals

To say it plainly: don’t use apostrophes to make plurals. Sentences such as Get your hamburger’s here are simply wrong. The little apostrophe was not meant to make one hamburger into multiple hamburgers.

Here are a few other samples of the apostrophe being pressed into the wrong service:

  • These paper’s need correcting.
  • Two boy’s were bragging about their dog’s.
  • Apostrophe’s are complicated.

Why do people do this to the apostrophe? The construction ‘s is meant to show ownership (or a contraction, as in the second abuse discussed below), not a plural. Perhaps people abuse the apostrophe in this way because they don’t know the difference between ownership and plurals. Perhaps they see this abuse occurring so often that they don’t even realize it is wrong (much like using data as a singular noun although it is really a plural).

Villainous sentences like People living in the 1990’s bought a lot of CD’s certainly don’t promote virtuous use of the noble apostrophe.

Abuse #2: Contractions

To say it plainly: put the apostrophe in place of missing letters. The little apostrophe is very powerful. It can stand in for all the letters of the alphabet without breaking a sweat. Do you want to leave out part of a word? The apostrophe is on hand to take its place. The apostrophe is mighty in this way and should not be forgotten.

Here are a few correct examples of the apostrophe doing what it should:

  • We don’t forget the apostrophe in contractions. The apostrophe is filling in for the missing O in do not.
  • Here’s the correct use of an apostrophe. The apostrophe is filling in for the missingI in here is.
  • You’re abusing the apostrophe again. The apostrophe is filling in for the missing a in you are.

This is also the rule that explains why you don’t put an apostrophe in its when using its as a possessive, as in: The apostrophe can take its place. In this sample sentence, its isn’t a contraction for it is, so you don’t use the apostrophe.

The rules for using apostrophes are very simple, so our editors are often surprised that many writers (not writer’s) make this mistake. The two cases where apostrophes are most often forgotten, in our experience, are in the words you’re and they’re. Sometimes the apostrophe is there, but it’s in the wrong place.

End Apostrophe Abuse Now

Poor apostrophe. It can do so much for you when you use it correctly. In fact, knowing how to use apostrophes correctly is a sign of being a professional writer. Let’s end apostrophe abuse and restore its dignity as a powerful and important member of your punctuation arsenal.

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Filed under Authors, Editing, Mechanics, Writing

17 responses to “End Apostrophe Abuse

  1. Pingback: Topics about Construction » Archive » End Apostrophe Abuse

  2. Pingback: End Apostrophe Abuse « Precise Edit’s Blog

  3. So the correct way to write your sentence is: People living in the 1990s bought a lot of CDs. Correct? Can’t remember if I have ever made that mistake, but thanks for making me think,

    Children’s Writing and Illustrating

  4. Kathy: Yes, that is the correct way. Using an apostrophe for plural years and initials is common-but it is not correct.

  5. jake

    Don’t forget about “its” and “it’s.” “It’s” is only used as a contraction of “it is,” not to denote ownership. For all other purposes, use “its.”

  6. That’s correct. Possessive pronouns do not need apostrophes, but contractions do.

  7. Chris U

    How about “Saturdays”? Could this be abbreviated as “Sat’s.” or “Sats.” ?

  8. Nunya

    “It is generally acceptable to use apostrophes to show plurals of single lower-case letters, such as be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”

  9. Nunya, I have seen this, as well. This apostrohpe prevents plural “i” from becoming the verb “is,” for example. Our preference, though, is to capitalize individual letters, in which case no apostrophe is needed: “Dot your Is and cross your Ts.” The controversy on this particular apostrophe use rages on.

  10. Jill

    I am confused about which way to face an apostrophe when it is representing unpronounced letters at the beginning of a word. For example, if in dialogue, someone says ’em instead of them, or ‘fore instead of before, or ’bout instead of about, which way should the apostrophe face: backwards or forwards? I think it should face forwards, but am not 100% sure. Can you please advise me?

  11. Jill – Good question! The apostrophe will always curve to the left, regardless of where it is placed. Some word processors will curve the apostrophe to the first letter, to the right, when it is placed before a shortened word, but this is wrong. The apostrophe will always curve left. A single quote, on the other hand, may curve in either direction, depending on where it is used.

  12. Jill

    Thanks for your prompt answer to my question. I am currently editing my husband’s soon-to-be-released novel, She-Rain, and wanted to make sure the apostrophes are facing the correct way. I can’t imagine why Word sometimes faces them right, and other times left!

    This is a wonderful website, a gift to writers and editors, and I sincerely thank you for your time. :-)

  13. katmop

    if it always curves to the left then why when i look it up on wikipedia, does it(there’s this one main picture of it) curve to the right? does wiki have it wrong? what is your source? why don’t you correct it?

  14. The apostrophe always curves to the left, top to bottom. Sometimes, if a person is using “smart quotes,” an initial apostrophe will curve the wrong direction, as if it were a single quotation mark. If the apostrophe is used within a word, it will curve the correct direction.

  15. Daniel Price

    This is a great and easy-to-understand article. I have seen this misuse of apostrophes for creating plurals all the time on the Internet, TV ads and other places you’d expect the person who wrote it to have a proper grasp of the English language, punctuation, etc.

    There’s just something I wanted to double-check on as far as apostrophes go.

    The soldier’s guns. The guns belong to a soldier.

    The soldiers’ guns. The guns belong to several soldiers. It is pronounced the same as “soldiers”.


    James’s car. The car belongs to James. Pronounced as plurals with an “s” at the end usually are.

    James’ car. The car belongs to James. This is incorrect, yes? I have also seen it written like this and I believe it is wrong.

    Is this correct?

  16. The soldier’s guns. The guns belong to a soldier. (Yes, this is correct.)

    The soldiers’ guns. The guns belong to several soldiers. It is pronounced the same as “soldiers”. (Yes, this is correct, too.)

    James’s car. The car belongs to James. Pronounced as plurals with an “s” at the end usually are. (Same here, pronounced like “Jameses”)

    James’ car. The car belongs to James. (You’re right. This is wrong. The only time you can use the apostrophe by itself after the “s” is with plural nouns that end in “s.” “James” is not a plural noun, so it needs the “s” The only exception is for a very small set of historical religious figures’ names that end in “s”, i.e., “Jesus”)

  17. Mike in Boston

    I would be remiss not to point out that Bob the Angry Flower also has an excellent summary, available in poster form. (I have no connection with the site other than being a fan.)

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