The Almighty Apostrophe

I think the apostrophe (the single right-hand quote, called “the inverted comma” across the pond) may hold the title for the most mis-used punctuation mark in the English language. The apostrophe does one of two things in English:

  1. Indicates missing characters
  2. Indicates possession

It’s not used to make plurals. Not of numbers, not of letters. It’s not used to let the reader know an S is coming (aka “the grocer’s apostrophe,” which is a whole ’nother post). It’s not used to separate two awkward vowels. It either means something was removed, or it means X belongs to Y. That’s it!

So where are people messing this up, and what are the correct ways to use this poor mark?

PLURALS OF NUMBERS AND DATES

People get nervous about one or two characters. It’s easy enough to spell out small numbers (in fact, AP requires this), so “being at sixes and sevens” is straightforward. You might even hedge this with ages, like he’s in his thirties, or dates when discussing specific periods of time, like the Roaring Twenties. But if you want to talk about “the decade encompassing 1980–89,” people can get all flustered. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to just stick an S on the end of 80 — it needs a bit of visual glue, some way to indicate that the plural is deliberate and not “I meant to save that and missed the Command key.”

And yet that’s exactly how it should look. When referring to decades, an apostrophe is only used to indicate the absence of the century. Those two numbers are being removed, so the apostrophe indicates that they were there and aren’t now.

  • RIGHT: the ’80s
  • WRONG: the 80’s
  • WRONG: the ’80’s
  • WRONG: the 80s

And if you’re keeping the century, it looks like this:

  • RIGHT: the 1880s
  • WRONG: the 1880’s

PLURALS OF LETTERS

No matter how lonely those single letters look, they don’t require an apostrophe to hold hands with their plural Ss. (See what I did there?) So the cliché is written as Mind your Ps and Qs. I do prefer to capitalize the single letter to make it easier to read (the same logic which English uses when it capitalizes the first-person pronoun I, because it’s important, and not the indefinite article a, which is not). So I’d mark it as Ps and Qs rather than ps and qs, which is hardly readable.

This also pops up when handling two-letter words, such as dos and don’ts (not do’s), and abbreviations like FAQs and P&Ls (not FAQ’s or P&L’s). I admit that dos and don’ts is a tricky one, but that’s why I’m including it here. There’s nothing being removed from do, nor does do belong to anything, so no apostrophes need apply.

The same goes for the abbreviations of academic degrees: My sister has two M.A.s. If your house style doesn’t use periods in a degree, it’s written as My sister has two MAs.

The exception to this is if you’re referencing a name. You should spell a proper name the way the user of the name wants it spelled. So even though it’s technically incorrect, the abbreviation for the American Association of Advertising Agencies is written as the 4A’s, because that’s how the organization has presented it (including in the logo).

VOWEL STRINGS

Let ’em crash, I say! It’s not silo’ed or silo’ing, no matter how scared those little Os may appear to be by the oncoming vowel. People say siloed and siloing all the time. I promise your reader will understand it. You don’t need an umlaut like in naïve (one vowel making two sounds) or a hyphen like in re-entry (where re- is a meaningful prefix which might get lost in the double E of reentry).

POSSESSIVES

There are a number of rules explaining how to show possession, and sometimes even I have to invert phrases and spell things out to be sure I have it right. So here we go:

One X owns Y

Add apostrophe-S.

  • the cat’s bowl (the bowl of the cat)
  • the woman’s book (the book of the woman)
  • the captain’s log (the log of the captain)

Easy, right? Slight hitch when it comes to the S. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style will both tell you that for a word which ends in S in front of a word which doesn’t, use apostrophe-S:

  • the witness’s face (the face of the witness)
  • the actress’s award (the award of the actress)

But if the next word also starts with S, just use an apostrophe.

  • the witness’ story (the story of the witness)
  • the actress’ speech (the speech of the actress)

I loathe this. I think it looks very wrong. If you say all the Ss (“wit-ness-es story”), you ought to write all the Ss (witness’s story). I acknowledge that I’m in the minority here, and as most publications are going to follow either AP or Chicago, it will be marked thus.

For names, AP and Chicago differ. Both agree about names which don’t end in S:

  • Dave’s book (the book of Dave)

For a name which ends in S, AP wants to use just an apostrophe:

  • James’ book (the book of James)

Chicago recommends apostrophe-S:

  • James’s book (the book of James)

I prefer Chicago here for the same reasoning as above.

One more caveat to do with proper names: When you have a business such as McDonald’s or Applebee’s which has a possessive apostrophe in the name, just rewrite the thing. Add in extra words like Co. or Corp. if they apply, if that helps.

  • WRONG: McDonald’s guiding principle
  • WRONG: McDonald’s’s guiding principle (no, you cannot ever have ’s’s in a row. Ever.)
  • RIGHT: McDonald’s Corp.’s guiding principle
  • RIGHT: the guiding principle of McDonald’s
  • WRONG: part of Applebee’s menu
  • RIGHT: part of the Applebee’s menu (the company name is now an adjective modifying “menu”)
  • WRONG: Members of the 4A’s business committee
  • WRONG: Members of the 4As’ business committee
  • WRONG: Members of the 4A’s’ business committee
  • RIGHT: Members of the business committee of the 4A’s

Multiple X own Y

For regular plural nouns, add S-apostrophe.

  • the cats’ bowl (one bowl used by several cats)
  • the employees’ lounge (one lounge used by many employees)
  • the protestors’ demands (many demands given by many protestors)

For irregular plural nouns, it gets a little trickier. Invert the sentence to the Y of the X. Whatever X is will get apostrophe-S at the end — not S-apostrophe. To wit:

  • the women’s aria (one aria sung by many women)
  • women’s rights (the many rights of all women)
  • the children’s corner (one corner used by many children)
  • the alumni’s dinner (one dinner given to many alumni — the singular of the word is either alumnus, alumna, or sometimes alum)

X and Z own Y

Now we’re into grammar fun. The basic rules here are to consider whether there is one Y or two, and whether X and Z own Y jointly or separately.

  • Irene and Mary’s daughter

There’s one daughter; she has two parents. Irene and Mary are a unit, a single X, despite being made of two individuals. So the single apostrophe-S goes on the end name.

  • Irene’s and Mary’s daughters

Two daughters, each with her own parent. Each name gets apostrophe-S.

  • Irene and Mary’s plans

In this phrase, there is one set of plans (a plural object) which both Irene and Mary own. The single apostrophe-S goes on the end name.

  • Irene’s and Mary’s plans

There are two sets of plans here. Irene has one set, and Mary has the other. Each name gets apostrophe-S.

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