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Troubles with Apostrophes

Copyright © 2002-2005 by David E. Ross

The plane began to level off around thirty thousand feet and Bill came aft with a pitcher of Martini's.

We never learn in this story what was in the pitcher that belonged to Martini.

By this time, the other's, thoroughly entertained by Alberto's frank humor, chortled at such an absurd idea.

Too many writers know that they should use an apostrophe now and then, but they don't know when. Actually, there are only three times when an apostrophe should be used: in a contraction to indicate the omission of letters, in a possessive, and to show a break in pronouncing a word. An apostrophe is never used to show a plural, with one very rare exception.

A contraction is a word formed by omitting some letters. Often a contraction is made of two or more words joined by omitting the last letters of the first word and the first letters of the last word. Examples are:

Actually, the apostrophe does not merely indicate the omission of a few letters. It indicates the omission of a syllable or more. Thus, go's is not a valid contraction of goes; it is merely illiteracy. As seen above, omitting a necessary apostrophe or inserting one where it does not belong changes the meaning of a word. In some cases (e.g., we'll and well, we're and were), it even changes the pronunciation of the word.

Note that a name with an apostrophe may be a contraction. O'Hara is derived from [child] of Hara.

A possessive is a word indicating ownership. It is usually formed by taking the word for the owner and adding 's to the end. If the owner is a plural ending in an s, the possessive is indicated by merely adding the apostrophe. Examples are:

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One of the strangest attempts to write a possessive that I ever saw was the use of societ'es where the author meant society's. Obviously, no spell-checker was used.
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Note that something that belongs to me is David Ross's something. There is an 's following s. Also note that, when writing about my family, there are six Rosses (not Ross's) because the plural of a word ending in s (and also ch, sh, and x) is generally formed by adding es.

Also, note that pronouns do not have an apostrophe when adding an s for a possessive. Thus, we have: hers, its, yours, ours, theirs. It's is a contraction for it is, not the possessive of it.

Frazz cartoon with sarcasm about the fact that the difference between 'its' and 'it's' is NOT 'stuff everyone knows'

Sometimes, when pronouncing a word, it has a break. When writing that word, the break is indicated by an apostrophe. Thus, we see Hawai'i because we say Hah why ee and not Hah why. This is a rare use of the apostrophe.

The exception for plurals arises when we have a string of characters (often just a single character) and then we have more than one of them. If we write with the use of Italics, the string is Italicized but the added s for the plural is not. (Note how the s in this preceeding sentence is Italicized because I am writing about the character and not the shape.) Thus we might have two xs or two abs (abab). If, however, we are not using Italics, the plural of a character is indicated with 's.

Thus we might have two x's or two ab's.

Given the widespread use of word-processing capable of using Italics, this use of the apostrophe is becoming not only rare but also confusing (because it looks just like a possessive).

Last updated 1 April 2005

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