What’s the Apostrophe Doing There?

The apostrophe is an innocuous-looking thing, but it does have the power to screw things up – just like the comma.  I don’t know about you, but I feel so uncomfortable when I see signs and other written material that look like the following.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Hill

Photo credit: Quezi

So what’s wrong with the images?

While not everyone has the same issues with apostrophes, we cannot deny that there are a lot of people who struggle with the use of this squiggly punctuation mark.  I know some people who are reasonably good writers but still sometimes put an apostrophe when there should be none.  Let me know what you think about the following examples, and then tell me what the apostrophe is doing there.

I consider myself to be a child of the ’80’s.

So is this right or wrong?  I remember seeing this form used so often that at one point, I questioned my knowledge.  When I looked it up, my doubts were erased.  We do not use an apostrophe when writing the plural form of a noun – word or number.  This sentence should therefore be written as: I consider myself to be a child of the ’80s.

Don’t forget to dot your i’s.

What’s the first apostrophe doing there?  This one’s easy: we use an apostrophe for contractions.  The apostrophe is always placed where the omitted letter would have been if it were not omitted.

How about the second apostrophe?  The sentence obviously refers to the letter “i” – and lots of it.  In the previous example, we just established that we do not use an apostrophe when writing the plural form of a noun.  Shouldn’t that last word be “is” then?

You can easily spot why the apostrophe is necessary in this case.  If you omit the apostrophe, the sentence will become ambiguous. Are you referring to many i’s or are you referring to the verb?

They’re fixing Silas’s bike.

What’s the apostrophe doing in the third word?  I’ve heard how this form looks weird to some people, but it is actually correct.  We use an apostrophe to show possession.  Even if the name ends in s, the apostrophe is required.  What can be changed is the presence of the second s.  This is not required – the sentence can actually be re-written as:

They’re fixing Silas’ bike.

The first form, however, is preferable.

The store just received a new shipment of DVD’s.

Remember the first rule – do not use an apostrophe for plural nouns.  You know how to fix this one!

To sum it up, use an apostrophe:

  1. to indicate possession;
  2. to write contractions; and
  3. to avoid ambiguity in meaning (as with the letter i).






6 responses
  1. Su-sieee! Mac Avatar

    Thank you. Yours is the easiest explanation to understand yet. I get it now.

    1. Noemi Twigg Avatar
      Noemi Twigg

      Glad to help, Susieee-Mac!

  2. Reena Jacobs Avatar

    Apostrophes with homonyms always trip me up. its versus it’s, they’re versus their and there, who’s versus whose. I always have to take a pause and determine what I really want to say before I set it in stone.

    1. Noemi Twigg Avatar
      Noemi Twigg

      Tell me about it! Its/it’s screws me up sometimes – especially when I’m in a hurry or just plain tired.

  3. Jon Bard Avatar

    Amen! You magically hit on two of my major peeves: DVD’s and decades. Sadly, I feel we’re fighting a losing battle on this one — in time, popular usage will overtake proper usage and we’ll all be using apostrophes like crazy by the time the 2020s (or should it be 2020’s) roll around. 🙂

    Jon Bard
    Managing Editor,
    Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers

    1. Noemi Twigg Avatar
      Noemi Twigg

      You just might be right. :-s

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