Notes from Writing Class - The Apostrophe

Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, while sharing the things I learn along the way.   Enjoy.

This week is all about punctuation so I couldn't forget our friend the Apostrophe.

Apostrophes give everyone a run for their money. Do I use them? When do I use them? How do I use them?

And not even the style guides all agree on some of their uses.

The basics
The apostrophe has three uses:

1. to form possessives of nouns
2. to show the omission of letters
3. to indicate certain plurals of lowercase letters

The possessive

The man's hat.

Technically speaking this sentence actually reads:

The man "his" hat

In the original usage the apostrophe is there to show the omitted letters "hi" in the possessive of his.

Screwy huh?

Why not just say the mans hat?

Because in most cases, it's considered incorrect. You use the apostrophe to show possession.It is his hat, him being "the man."

Let's look at another.

Add 's to the plural forms that do not end in -s

The children's game

Children is already a plural for child so we need to add the 's.

Let's look at another.

Add 's to the last noun to show joint possession of an object.

It's Jimmy and Anne's apartment.

Only the last person mentioned get's the 's.


Add ' to the end of plural nouns that end in -s

Three weeks' of study.

In this case since the plural of week is weeks, we add the ' just at the end.

OK, but what about when a person's name already end in an s? Do we just at the ' at the end or do we have to add the 's?

That's where the style guides get funky.

They disagree on which is best.

James' hat


James's hat

Both can be technically correct and it really depends on your editor and which style guide to use.

My editor uses (CMOS) so for my stories, I'm being trained (Yes she is training me... =p )to use the added 's on the end of each name. You'll have to check with your editor to see which they prefer to use as it will make a slight difference in your stories. The best option of course is to pick one and always stick with it. This avoids inconsistencies in your manuscript like having half the James' end up as James's. Even the best editors won't catch them all.

to show the omission of letters

This bit is simple and most often used in contractions.

don't = do not
I'm = I am
he'll = he will
who's = who is
shouldn't = should not
didn't = did not

Don't think that's the only way to use them though. When writing out dialogue, these can be used to show the manner of speaking.

I'm goin' out huntin'.

See how the apostrophe is used here to show the missing letters and it give the reader an idea of how the word is said.

to indicate certain plurals of lowercase letters

Mind your p's and q's

In most cases, you just add in the 's on these little guys. Unless, of course, it's a symbol or number you're trying to add it too.

For example, dates:

the 1960s

or, symbols:

you use entirely too many !s (It's very rare to use this but it can happen, especially in note writing.)

When not to use an apostrophe?

With possessive pronouns. (They already show possession)

Is this his' book. = wrong
Is this his book. = correct

A friend of yours'. = wrong
A friend of yours. = correct

Who's dog is this? = wrong
Whose dog is this? = correct

She waited in the train station for three hours'. = Wrong
She waited in the train station for three hours. = correct

So there you have it, a very basic overview of the apostrophe and it's usage.