Brain Break (English Class)

Apostrophes: The Tiny Abused Punctuation Mark

Apostrophes often end up misused - even by the best
Image from TungCheung via Adobe Stock

I am one of those people that winces when I see misused punctuation. I probably need a blindfold to drive around (exempting, of course, the need to safely see where I’m going). Billboards, banners, signposts, and posters all send my blood pressure through the roof. And people PAID for them! So you’d think the writer they employed could handle placing apostrophes. (I’ll save commenting on terrible slogans for another day) But no. That tiny piece of our grammar education is so abused it isn’t even funny.

At least, not to Grammar Nazis like me.

Our Friend the Apostrophe

How many ways can you think of to use apostrophes?

One? Two?

How about four. To be fair, though, we typically only use three in mainstream writing:

  1. As a replacement for an omitted letter (this includes your contractions)
  2. To indicate possession
  3. As a way to present plurals of abbreviations or symbols

Easy enough – except, like commas, everyone tends to stumble on whether or not the tiny mark belongs. And it’s the last two instances that cause the most trouble. (For the most part, we seem to understand substituting a mark for a letter) The rule seems to be “when in doubt, through an apostrophe in.”

Not the best idea.

And it can get complicated when you need to decide WHERE to add the quick stroke of the pen (or type of the key). Plenty of writers add and delete their marks for HOURS, debating what to do.

It’s an agony you don’t need to endure any longer.

Possession Apostrophes

Everyone grasps possession, right? (You should know by now I can’t pass up a good pun) When you’re writing copy or content and need to describe something that belongs to something else (physical or otherwise), it’s time to break out your trusty apostrophe.

  • Kayak’s buoyancy (possession: a physical property)
  • Vet’s compassion (possession: a personality trait)
  • Depression’s sadness (possession: a feeling)

For the most part, writers don’t struggle with the grammar there. It’s when plurals enter the picture that problems start. What are you supposed to do when a word ends with an “s?” And are the rules different for common nouns versus proper nouns?

To put it simply: Yes and no.

There’s no hard and fast rule because everyone handles things differently. The rule I stick to is that all you need is an apostrophe:

  • Bubbles’ shine
  • Kennedys’ weirdness
  • Crowds’ anger

Short, sweet, simple, and uncomplicated. It also READS smoothly. And that’s what can help you when you’re trying to decide what to do. As long as you’re not throwing one on to CREATE a plural, you’re probably not in the wrong, though. (But it seems to be the favorite activity of plenty of writers out there)

Plural Apostrophes

Most people (not writers, usually) love to use apostrophes to indicate plurals. I don’t know why. The letter “s” works beautifully. For some reason, though, they believe a punctuation mark belongs in the mix.

SOME things require the addition of an apostrophe to create a plural, but words – a writer’s bread and butter – don’t usually figure into the mix.

Unless you deal in numbers, symbols, or abbreviations.

Those weird keys on the keyboard don’t lend themselves to plurals very well. But it’s relatively common that you need to indicate more than one. And that’s where apostrophes come in handy. Throw in your trust “‘s” and you’re ready to go:

  • DVM’s
  • Ph.D.’s
  • 5’s (NOT a possessive)

Obviously, if you decide you need to write a possession for any of those, the same rules as above work just as quickly (and it will read the same).

But I can’t write The Kennedy’s on the front door. That isn’t the proper use of an apostrophe – and it’s something you see EVERYWHERE on a walk around the neighborhood. Proper grammar states it should say The Kennedys.

(Welcome to the Kennedy’s is a gray zone. Technically, the house belongs to us. But without that clarification of “house” at the end, the statement is still wrong)

Contraction Friendly

Grammar’s one of the first things we learn after they teach us how to write. But if you don’t refresh your brain on the rules, things slide out. And it’s usually the tiny things that go first.

Such as commas and apostrophes.

And the average person – clients and their target audiences – probably won’t catch the mistake for you. But that doesn’t give you a free pass to slack off. You want to make sure you’re using the rules of language properly. It elevates you above the AI out there – and the cheap “writers” who don’t care about throwing apostrophes into their work willy-nilly.

Now – just for fun – how many contractions did I use in this piece? (You didn’t think I forgot about that rule, did you?)

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