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Apostrophe misuse is all too common. Pretty much every single day, I sign onto Facebook and at least one person has written a status with an inappropriately placed apostrophe (or inappropriate lack of apostrophe). And that’s not the only place: Twitter, blogs, forums, the instructions on the package of one of those rubbery animals you put in water and it grows. Mistakes happen. I can’t pretend I’ve never made an apostrophe-related mistake myself, but apostrophes seem to be an area of particular trickiness for a lot of people, so I bring to you a super exciting lesson on using apostrophes. (Okay, okay. Unless you’re a serious fanatic, exciting’s probably not the right word. But still! Educational and useful.)

First, contractions. This sounds obvious, and it’s easy to remember where the apostrophe goes in words like don’t and wasn’t. But sometimes, it gets confusing. Anytime you are leaving a letter out of a word, put the apostrophe where you left out that letter. As an example from above, I wrote “exciting’s probably not the right word,” combining exciting and is, and putting an apostrophe in place of the I. If you aren’t sure where you’re supposed to be putting your apostrophe, think about the two words separately, and then you’ll know. Like the commonly butchered word y’all, for instance. Y’all is you+all combined. You are removing the ‘ou’, so the apostrophe needs to go after the Y. Not after the A*. Apostrophe using omissions also include years, like: "class of ’11", which leaves out the 20 in 2011.

Next, forming possessives. Again, this sounds simple, but it can be confusing. Basically what helps me remember whether or not an apostrophe belongs is to rearrange the sentence in my head. For example, if I write the sentence, “I am going to Mary’s house.” I could rewrite it as “I am going to the house belonging to Mary.” If you can’t rearrange the sentence so that the word with the ‘s possesses something, you don’t need it there. And don’t forget to think about whether the apostrophe goes before or after the S. For example: “I am going to the smith’s house” vs. “I am going to the Smiths’ house.” In the first sentence, I would assume you’re going to see a blacksmith (or other type of smith.) And in the second, I would assume you’re going to the home of a family with the last name Smith.

It’s also important to think about when not to use apostrophes. Just because a word ends with an S doesn’t necessarily mean you need an apostrophe there. No apostrophe is required in a sentence like, “I saw the Smiths when I was out for a walk.” They are plural, yes, but they aren’t possessing anything in this sentence. And when you are referring to two people possessing the same item – for example, “I went to Mary and Matt’s house.” – you don’t need an apostrophe after the first name. And do not use apostrophes with possessive pronouns (his, yours, its, etc.) because they already show possession as they are.

Apostrophes (not apostrophe’s!) come up so often when we write that they seem really basic and get forgotten about, but it’s good to refresh ourselves every now and again, isn’t it?

And for a slightly more thorough version of what I said, in flowchart form (with pictures!), visit The Oatmeal.

*Really you guys. I think I see this done wrong more often than I see it done right.

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. On contractions, my English teacher taught us that the missing letters exploded and the apostrophe was a bit of the wreck left hanging in the world. Imaginative, and it worked!

  2. Great lesson! And the Facebook thing really is starting to drive me batshit. The apostrophes, the its/it's, the dreaded your/you're...grr.

    Christine, that's really cute! :)

  3. Christine, that is such a fun way to remember!

  4. I'm considered the "apostrophe police" around my office, but hey... someones' got to do it!


  5. I hate it when I get a few thousand words into writing a new book, and realize I've given one of my characters a name that ends in "s", causing all sorts of headbanging.

    "I'm leaving for Jack Dawes'" or "I'm leaving for Jack Dawes's" For Jesus's (Jesus'?)sake, which is it???

  6. I die a little inside every time I see someone write "ya'll".

    Great post! I'll be directing all of my apostrophe-illiterate friends here. :)

  7. Great post - very clearly explained. I also enjoyed Lynne Truss' Eats Shoots & Leaves book. Much like yourself, she worries and laments the poor tractable apostrophe. Christine, I love your exploding letters explanation! :)

  8. It's funny you mention Facebook to start with. Yes, there is a lot of bad grammar and spelling on that site. Sometimes I wonder if it's a bad sign, since it can be used a gauge of the average reading/writing level of the populace at large.

  9. You know, I am a HORRIBLE grammatician (grammarian?). My book required more patient editing by my publisher than I like to admit; however, this one KILLS me! What a fun, funny post.

  10. If you're logging into FB and apostrophes are the worst mistake you find - your friends are brilliant!!

    Angelica made me laugh (and hope for an answer).

  11. I love it!

    So maybe I'm not the only one bugged by these mistakes. In my mind I get it right, by my spell-check says otherwise.

    We have a restaurant in our tiny town owned by two cousins. Every time I drive by I think someone is playing a trick on me because the front window is painted "Cousin's Cafe - yes, we really are cousins!"

  12. Angelica, both ways are technically correct. I read somewhere that doing it with the 's is preferable, but I think it's a matter of picking one and being consistent, mainly.
    Thanks for the comments, everyone!


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Item Reviewed: Apostrophes Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward