The apostrophe is one of the most misused punctuations in the United States. A vast majority of us certainly know the difference between a possessive noun and a plural noun, but it boggles the mind how many times you may see these two forms used interchangeably. It’s like ignoring any other basic rules – you wouldn’t get on a plane to Vienna, Virginia when you really want to go to Vienna, Austria, right?
The apostrophe may be small, but it is of monstrous importance in the writing world and when not used correctly, can create considerable confusion. This is especially true when used with the letter “s”.
== Plural Nouns vs. Possessive Nouns (Ownership) ==
The most popular use of the apostrophe is the formation of a possessive noun. That is, giving ownership to your noun:
“Donna noticed that her cat’s eyes were two different colors.”
“Mark’s cell phone kept disconnecting at the most inopportune times.”
“There is an amazing amount of molten rock at the earth’s core.”
The eyes belong to the cat, the cell phone belongs to Mark, and the core belongs to the earth.
So, we can show ownership. It may seem easy to some people, but it still helps to know the basics of when an apostrophe is needed. Let’s move on to plural nouns.
A simple plural noun with an “s” is…well, simple. Here are three easy plural nouns (chairs, floors, ships) in separate sentences:
“There are seven chairs around the dining room table.”
“Many people appreciate wood floors in a new house.”
“I would love to take a cruise on one of those ships.”
There is no ownership here; there is simply more than one of each noun. Now let’s use the same words, but give them ownership with an apostrophe:
“This chair’s seat cushion is awfully lumpy.”
“Sandy marveled at the floor’s shine.”
“The ship’s casino is open all night.”
Can you see the difference? Similar to the first examples on this page, the seat cushion belongs to the chair, the shine belongs to the floor, and the casino belongs to the ship. It’s all about ownership, or using the possessive form of the word.
== Words That End With “s” ==
What about plural nouns that end with an “s”? When do you use an apostrophe and where do they go? Do you use one “s” or two?
When a plural noun ends with “s,” you can simply place the apostrophe after the word, but without the extra “s.” (Some may argue this point, depending on which rules of grammar your follow and what country you’re from.) Here are a couple of examples of plural nouns that end with “s,” in their possessive forms:
“The banks’ vaults are secured electronically.”
“The twins’ weddings occurred during the same month.”
This usually works for proper names, too. You might leave out the extra “s” (see the alternative answers for the names below), especially since most publishing companies do the same. Some examples of proper names that end with “s” follow, in their possessive forms:
“Chris’ trumpet playing is improving every week.” (Alternative: “Chris’s”)
“Janis’ clothes always seem to look good on her.” (Alternative: “Janis’s”)
Feel free to use the extra “s” if you want. Just remember to be consistent.
== Contractions ==
You can also find the apostrophe as part of a contraction. In the etymological world, this has nothing to do with showing ownership. A contraction is merely putting two words together – usually a pronoun followed by a verb – to create a new word. Here are some examples of contractions, with the formal (non-contracted) phrase following each sentence:
“They’ll be arriving this summer.” (They will)
“I’m starting a home-based business.” (I am)
“She’d love to go to London.” (She would)
Read this next paragraph carefully – there is more here than just contractions:
“I’ve known all along that you’re an avid traveler, but Malcolm’s encouragement of your London vacation is astounding. I’m surprised he doesn’t simply pay for your air fare himself!”
(I have, you are, I am, does not)
Here are the non-contractions:
1) “Malcolm’s” is not a contraction; it is a possessive noun, showing ownership of the word “encouragement.”
2) “Your” (used twice without the apostrophe) is not a contraction; It is a pronoun (i.e. him, her, he, she, it, you, your, they, them, I, we, etc.).
When you are looking at or writing a sentence, a good rule of thumb is to ask, “Does the contraction make sense if I take the apostrophe out and separate the contraction?” Which one of the following sentences is correct?
“You forgot you’re raincoat.”
“This city’s not as safe as I thought.”
“They left they’re front door open.”
If you said the second one, well done. You get a gold star! Using the rule of thumb mentioned above, here’s why:
The contraction “you’re” becomes “you are”:
“You forgot you are raincoat.” Makes no sense.
Correct: “You forgot your raincoat.” Notice the spellings (your vs. you’re).
The contraction “city’s” becomes “city is”:
“This city is not as safe as I thought.” Yes. The sentence still makes sense.
The contraction “they’re” becomes “they are”:
“They left they are front door open.” Umm, no.
Correct: “They left their front door open.” Again, spelling counts (they’re vs. their).
Remember, a contraction will NOT show ownership.
== Exception to the Rule ==
You can loosen that grip on your mouse – we’re almost done.
There’s one big exception to the possessive noun use of the apostrophe, and here it is:
That’s right. This tiny word gives so many people so much trouble that it’s worth going over the apostrophe usage. (Did you catch the “it’s” in that last sentence? Contraction again, meaning, “it is.”) Look here:
See that gopher? It’s digging a hole.
See that building? Its roof is green.
See that alien? Its spaceship landed in my backyard this morning. Weird!
Which example does NOT show ownership? The “roof” (noun) belongs to the building, the “spaceship” (noun) belongs to the alien, but the “digging” (verb!) does not belong to the gopher. The first example is merely telling us that the gopher is performing the action of digging. That’s all.
Notice that the possessive form of “its” is spelled without an apostrophe, but the contraction form is still the same: “It’s = It is.”
== Summary ==
Try these tips when you’re not sure how to use an apostrophe. There are other uses not mentioned here, but these basics will help you clear up most apostrophe-related miscommunications. Use the apostrophe well, and your readers will easily understand your message.