The Apostrophe: Most Vexing Punctuation Mark?

PhotobucketKath’s post on Monday about the top 10 irritating phrases in the UK led me to another interesting article in the Telegraph: one about Britons and their grappling with the apostrophe. This, from the article:

According to the survey nearly half the nation cannot use the possessive apostrophe and, most annoyingly, often replace “they’re” with “their”. 

The apostrophe has emerged in an independent poll of nearly 2,000 people as the punctuation mark that causes the most problems. Nearly half of UK adults tested were unable to use it properly.

The most common mistake was not knowing how to punctuate a possessive plural.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of those that sat the test thought that, in the context set, “people’s choice” was wrong – whereas it is, of course, correct.

Do we need this problematic little mark? What, exactly, is it for anyway? This from Washington State University:

First let’s all join in a hearty curse of the grammarians who inserted the wretched apostrophe into possessives in the first place. It was all a mistake. Our ancestors used to write “Johns hat” meaning “the hat of John” without the slightest ambiguity. However, some time in the Renaissance certain scholars decided that the simple “s” of possession must have been formed out of a contraction of the more “proper” “John his hat.” Since in English we mark contractions with an apostrophe, they did so, and we were stuck with the stupid “John’s hat.” Their error can be a handy reminder though: if you’re not sure whether a noun ending in “s” should be followed by an apostrophe, ask yourself whether you could plausibly substitute “his” or “her” for the S. 

The exception to this pattern involves personal pronouns indicating possession like “his,” “hers,” and “its.” For more on this point, see “its/it’s.”

Get this straight once and for all: when the S is added to a word simply to make it a plural, no apostrophe is used (except in expressions where letters or numerals are treated like words, like “mind your P’s and Q’s” and “learn your ABC’s”).

Apostrophes are also used to indicate omitted letters in real contractions: “do not” becomes “don’t.”

PhotobucketWhy can’t we all agree to do away with the wretched apostrophe? Because its two uses—contraction and possession—have people so thoroughly confused that they are always putting in apostrophes where they don’t belong, in simple plurals (“cucumber’s for sale”) and family names when they are referred to collectively (“the Smith’s” ).

Those last two examples, just to be clear, are both incorrect–unless you’re talking about a single cucumber, or a guy who likes to be called “the Smith.” This use of Smith is not to be confused with the band, The Smiths, by the way, who at least never produced an album with a big fat blunder on the cover. (Sorry, REM; my Michael Stipe love remains unaffected by your error.)

Punctuation errors regarding the apostrophe abound. A few minutes perusing the very funny The Abuse of Apostrophes In Everyday Life blog will convince you of that. I will admit that the family name dealio always gives me pause, but that one of my CPs has pretty successfully pounded the rule into my skull. Back to Washington U for a little more advice:

The practice of putting improper apostrophes in family names on signs in front yards is an endless source of confusion. “The Brown’s” is just plain wrong. (If you wanted to suggest “the residence of the Browns” you would have to write “Browns’,” with the apostrophe after the S, which is there to indicate a plural number, not as an indication of possession.) If you simply want to indicate that a family named Brown lives here, the sign out front should read simply “The Browns.” When a name ends in an S you need to add an ES to make it plural: “the Adamses.”

No apostrophes for simple plural names or names ending in S OK? I get irritated when people address me as “Mr. Brian’s.” What about when plural names are used to indicate possession? “The Browns’ cat” is standard (the second S is “understood”), though some prefer “the Browns’s cat.” The pattern is the same with names ending in S: “the Adamses’ cat” or—theoretically—“the Adamses’s cat,” though that would be mighty awkward.

Apostrophes are also misplaced in common plural nouns on signs: “Restrooms are for customer’s use only.” Who is this privileged customer to deserve a private bathroom? The sign should read “for customers’ use.”

For ordinary nouns, the pattern for adding an apostrophe to express possession is straightforward. For singular nouns, add an apostrophe plus an S: “the duck’s bill.” If the singular noun happens to end in one S or even two, you still just add an apostrophe and an S: “the boss’s desk.”

For plural nouns which end in S, however, add only the apostrophe: “the ducks’ bills.” But if a plural noun does not end in S, then you follow the same pattern as for singular nouns by adding an apostrophe and an S: “the children’s menu.”

It is not uncommon to see the “S” wrongly apostrophized even in verbs, as in the mistaken “He complain’s a lot.”

Ready to test your apostrophe knowledge? Here’s the test that stymied those Brits.

Are each of the following sentences correctly or incorrectly punctuated?

1. These are Charlotte Brooks’ books (her last name is Brooks)

2. John is the people’s choice

3. Buster is Janes’ dog

4. How’s it going today?

5. Johns’ house is amazing

6. All the teams in the league are going to vote, so it is all the team’s choice

7. You’ve got a lot of friends

8. They’re friends are all very nice

9. It’s a long way to Manchester

10. Its ahead of it’s time

Answers: 3, 5, 6, 8 & 10 were incorrect.

Want more? Try this short quiz:

1. Which of the following sentences correctly uses the apostrophe?

A. The Prestons have four girls in their family.
B. The Preston’s have four girls in their family.
C. The Prestons’ have four girls in their family.
D. The Prestons have four girl’s in their family.

2. Which of the following sentences correctly uses the apostrophe?

A. Each computer has it’s own quirks.
B. Each computer has its own quirk’s.
C. Each computer has its’ own quirks.
D. Each computer has its own quirks.

3. Which of the following sentences correctly uses the apostrophe?

A. Your not going to finish these assignments.
B. You’re not going to finish these assignments.
C. You’re not going to finish these assignment’s.
D. Your not going to finish these assignments’.

4. Which of the following sentences correctly uses the apostrophe?

A. Elvises’ antics offended the Taggart’s.
B. Elvis’s antics offended the Taggarts’.
C. Elvis’s antics offended the Taggarts.
D. Elvis’ antics offended the Taggarts.

Answers: A, D, B & C

To learn more about other habitually flubbed wonders in the English language, visit the Washington U site and take full advantage of their resource, Common Errors in English. It’s a real gem.

What do you think about the apostrophe? What trips up your mind and fingers about punctuation?

Write on, writers! (No apostrophe)


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. Thea says

    the apostrophe hasn’t been a major catastrophe for me, but i still get mixed up with more a possessive daughter-in-law. is it: my daughter’s-in-law, or daughter-in-law’s ?

  2. says

    For some reason, I have no problems with the apostrophe, but it really chaps my chips to see “their” “there” and “they’re” improperly used. Almost as annoying as ‘irregardless’, but not quite.

    It’s interesting to learn that the apostrophe is an arbitrary English renaissance punctuation mark. Thanks alot, Spencer and Shakespeare, pfft.

  3. says

    I believe it is the latter: daughter-in-law’s.

    The apostrophe doesn’t trip me up, but rules like “i.e.” must have a comma after it, and other such obscure things, often get me. Dashes are probably the worst (“half-chuckle, half-smile” or “half chuckle, half smile”? one year old, one-year old, or one-year-old?) because there are a number of “acceptable,” or at least “conventional,” ways to treat them, and they contradict each other!

    Also, the whole comma-before-or-after-the-quotes issue, come to think of it. I grew up learning it one way (,”) and now see it the other (“,) more frequently!

  4. says

    The apostrophe is no picnic in a last name either. I’ve spent many,many minutes waiting at doctor’s offices while they’ve searched for our name in the computer.

    “We don’t have you in the computer.”

    “Yes you do.”

    Some computers don’t take the apostrophe at all. Some receptionists forget to type it in.

    Anyway….congrats on your book deal! Can’t wait to read it.

    Michelle,(old friend of Sean’s).

    Now I’m scared. I hope my apostrophes are okay.

  5. Thea says

    what if it’s: two daughters-in-law’s rules for babysitting” (as an example)? did i get it right?

  6. says

    Thea, I agree with Kristan; I think it’s daughter-in-law’s (hope that’s right!).

    I’m a dash-and-hyphen freak, Kristan. Here’s one rule I know: If you’re talking about a one-year-old boy, you use dashes, because the age modifies the noun “boy.” If you’re talking about a one year old (no “boy,” “girl,” or “bottle of wine”), you don’t need any dashes, because “one year old” becomes the noun. At least, I think that’s right. :-)

    Nice to see you here, Michelle, and thanks so much for your kind well wishes!

  7. says

    Oh, gotcha, Thea. I think you’re right: “two daughters-in-law’s rules for babysitting.” Because “daughters-in-law’s” is such a mouthful, though, I might switch up the sentence a little: “the two daughters-in-law agreed to the rules of babysitting.”

  8. Sheilah Gaffe says

    It’s not that correct use of the apostophe is difficult, it’s just that it hasn’t been taught for so long that even teachers no longer understand its function.

    Check out this site for a short explanation:

    Compare: The butler called the guests names. (Rude)
    The butler called the guests’ names. (Appropriate)

    Think about:
    My sisters friends investments are performing poorly.
    Without the apostrophe – how many sisters? how many friends does she/do they have?

    It’s time to go back to educating teachers properly, and then everyone can learn how to spell, punctuate – and in time – write meaningful sentences again.