Apostrophe’s Are Often Misused (Ellen Kersey)


You’ve seen the incorrectly-written signs:

Special dinner for mother’s and grandmother’s

Used video’s on sale

And, of course, the apostrophe in the title of this article, which is not only unnecessary, but wrong indeed!

Some people have no idea where to put apostrophes. They are aware of them, but never learned what to do with them, so they add them here and there – maybe hoping readers will think they are intellectual.

Well YOU can KNOW where to put them and how to use them correctly. Just follow the rules below–

But before we get to the rules, here are the only three reasons for using apostrophes:

1)   contractions —

          do not = don’t

          cannot = can’t

          will not = won’t

English is the only language that uses contractions. We may use them because we prefer making words easier to say – or maybe we are simply lazy. The French would say, “La plume de ma tante” and “le table do mon oncle” – “the pen of my aunt” and “the table of my uncle.” But that would be too wordy for us English speakers, so we make one word out of two. We would say, “my aunt’s pen” and “my uncle’s table.”

2)   to show ownership –

          my dad’s car

          the doctor’s office

          a dog’s toy

3) to clarify

If I were to try to tell you “you need to dot your is and cross you ts,” I would need some apostrophes to make it clear that I’m talking about the letters “i” and “t.” So I would write, “You need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”

Using the computer, I would be able to write, “You need to dot your is and cross your ts,” putting the letters I’m referring to in italics. This might work, but, as you can see, it might still be confusing.

An important note: Apostrophes are never used to make words plural: the plural of “hero” is “heroes,” not “hero’s.”  The plural of “video” is simply “videos,” not “video’s.”

Remember, earlier I told you I would give you some rules for using apostrophes that will help you to KNOW where to put them. These rules are for using apostrophes to show ownership, probably the trickiest aspect.

A background story: When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher was giving us a test on using apostrophes to show ownership. I’m sure she had referred to the lessons in the book, which were lengthy, confusing, and hard to understand.

On the test was this phrase: the childrens toys. I knew the word “childrens” needed an apostrophe, but I did not know where to put it. So, sneaky child that I was, I sort of snuck it in right above the “s.” I hoped my teacher would assume that it was wherever it was supposed to be. Sad to say, she called me up to her desk and said, “Ellen, where is this apostrophe?”

I don’t remember whether I guessed right or wrong, but I remember that I had to guess because I didn’t know.

Follow these three rules, and you will never have to guess. But…you must totally disallow those old standards: If the word ends with “s,” put the apostrophe before the “s” if the word is singular and put the apostrophe after the “s” if the word is plural… And never say, “Is it apostrophe s or s apostrophe?”

Here are the rules:

1)   Write the name of the owner.

2)   Add an apostrophe.

3)   Add an “s” if you hear it.

          The boy's scooter is kinda cool.              Let’s try a few examples:

          Let’s say one boy owns a scooter.   Following the three rules, we would do this:

a)   boy

b)   boy’

c)   boy’s

The boy’s scooter is blue.

         Let’s say that three boys own scooters.

a)   boys

b)   boys’

c)   boys’ (I won’t add an “s” because I don’t hear another “s.”)

The boys’ scooters are blue.

          Let’s try something a little harder:

          The children own books.

a)   children

b)   children’

c)   children’s

The children’s books are all organized on the bookshelf.

          The men own cars.

a)   men

b)   men’

c)   men’s

The men’s cars all run well.

          Now let’s try something even trickier:

          Mr. and Mrs. Jones own their house. They even consider that the house also belongs to their children. So how are we going to write that?

          First, we have to figure out who the owner is. (See the samples above: the owners were “boy,” “boys,” “children,” and “men.”)

          It seems that all the family members own the house, so we can’t just say it is the “Jones’ house.” First, we have to make “Jones” plural to indicate all the members of the family.

          How do we make a word plural that ends in “s”?

Let’s consider “glass” for example.

We make “glass” plural by adding “es” = glasses.

So we will do the same thing with “Jones.”

We will add “es” and end up with the Joneses.

Now we can consider how to make the owner show ownership.

We will follow the three rules:

a)   Joneses (that’s the name of the owners of the house)

b)   Joneses’ (we are adding the apostrophe)

c)   Joneses’ (we are not adding an “s,” because we certainly won’t add another “s.”)

The Joneses’ house is deep in the forest.

If you have questions about apostrophes, don’t hesitate to contact me. I love apostrophes, but, just like my children, I get upset if they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do.


4 thoughts on “Apostrophe’s Are Often Misused (Ellen Kersey)

  1. Chris Vasquez

    Could it be the “Jones house”? If the word “house,”is the subject and the noun phrase is “The Jones house,” and the predicate and verb phrase is, “is deep in the forest,” with the prepositional phase being, “in the forest,” would it change the meaning drastically to call it the “Jones house” as opposed to the “Joneses’ house?”

  2. Ellen Kersey

    Chris – You raise a great question, one I’ve been trying to figure out. (And I’m wishing I had used a different example 😉 Here’s what I think: If you are referring to the house that is indeed called “the Jones house,” as in “the White House” or “Arlington House” (Robert G. Lee’s home), then you would not need an apostrophe. But picture this: Your friends down the block are Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Would you call their house “the Smith house,” or would you refer to it as “the Smiths’ house”? Does that help?

  3. David

    You have given very clear and concise explanations and examples here, Ellen. I can hear the polite, golf-clap applause from William Strunk and E.B. White drifting in from the wings.

  4. Ellen Kersey

    My goodness, David! That is indeed a great compliment! I’ve used these rules from teaching middle school and high school — and pretty much beating my students over the head with practice quizzes. Hopefully (it’s now okay to use the word this way ;-), some of them learned how to use apostrophes to show ownership!


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