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Oh, apostrophes. These tiny little squiggles can prove tricky, and I’ve seen some egregious treatment of these little guys as of late. Sometimes they form contractions. Sometimes they show possession. Can they ever make something plural? Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer is no. On the other hand, many people forget or omit the apostrophe when it’s inarguably needed. (“Hanging out at my parents’ house!” is NOT a grammatically sound caption for your Instagram photo. Neither is “Cheers to the Richardson’s!”) Without further ado, watch the video and read the full lesson below.

APOSTROPHES DO NOT PLURALIZE

A little louder for the people in the back. Apostrophes do not make something plural. Yet I cannot go a day without seeing this error a dozen times on social media, written in emails and plastered on signs at the grocery store. I am aware our phones change “We are now open on Saturdays” to “We are now open on Saturday’s,” but this autocorrect is autoINcorrect. Hit delete a few times and get that apostrophe out of there. With very few exceptions, apostrophes do not make nouns plural. Just add an s or an es depending on the word. (That will be for a later episode!)

INCORRECT: Congratulations to the Smith’s!
CORRECT: Congratulations to the Smiths!

INCORRECT: The Jones’ got a new puppy.
CORRECT: They Joneses got a new puppy.

INCORRECT: Sunday’s are for movies and wine.
CORRECT: Sundays are for movies and wine.

INCORRECT: I’m going through my old CD’s.
CORRECT: I’m going through my old CDs.

INCORRECT: I wish I had lived in the 60’s.
CORRECT: I wish I had lived in the ’60s. or I wish I had lived in the 60s.

Apostrophe cartoon

An excessive apostrophe used to incorrectly pluralize something is often called a grocers’ apostrophe. Cartoonist and writer Ros Asquith cleverly shows how often the poor apostrophes are thrown around. Image: Ros Asquith

The one notable exception to this rule is the plural form of single letters or words used in a phrase like these:

CONFUSING: Don’t forget to dot your is.
BETTER: Don’t forget to dot your i’s.

ACCEPTED, BUT POTENTIALLY CONFUSING: He got straight As.
ACCEPTED: He got straight A’s.

ACCEPTED, BUT POTENTIALLY CONFUSING: The dos and don’ts of apostrophes.
ACCEPTED: The do’s and don’ts of apostrophes.

CONTRACTIONS NEED APOSTROPHES

Now that we know when NOT to use apostrophes, when DO we use them? The first usage: contractions! A contraction is a shortened form of a word or group of words that omits certain letters, numbers or sounds. In a contraction, an apostrophe replaces the missing characters. Ask yourself: is something being left out to create a new word or phrase? Then you need an apostrophe where the characters have been taken out. Here are some common contractions.

I’m = I am — I’m ready for the weekend!
She’d = She would — She’d rather read a book than watch TV.
They’re = They are — They’re not going on their trip anymore.
You can’t = You cannot — It’s the red house on the corner, you can’t miss it.
O’clock = Of the clock — Don’t say “it’s 8 of the clock” unless you want some strange glances.

Some contractions are used to emulate casual speech or dialogue. Let’s look at a few fun examples from the American South:

Y’all = you all (Note: it is NEVER spelled ya’ll … the apostrophe replaces the ou in you, so it must be spelled y’all.)
Fixin’ = Fixing (verb and noun!). In the South, we almost always say this word without the final g. I’m fixin’ to start dinner. A fixin’ can also be a side dish at the dinner table.
Go get ’em = Go get them (the apostrophe places the th)
You’re killin’ me! = You are killing me!
They’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’! = They are cruising for a bruising!

Decade names are often contracted to shorten them. But because we are omitting numbers, the apostrophe comes before the decade. The 1970s =  The ’70s because the apostrophe replaces the 19 in 1970s. It is also acceptable to say the 70s without the apostrophe, but it NEVER comes before the s. Why? Apostrophes do not make things plural! 70’s is incorrect, though we see it written this way all the time.

But what if you’re saying, “We are looking back at 2010’s massive flood?” Then you need it! That means the flood of 2010. Possession, not pluralization. That leads us to the next role of the apostrophe …

POSSESSION NEEDS APOSTROPHES

The second instance we need the apostrophe is when we are showing possession. You need an apostrophe if you are saying something belongs to something or someone. Example: Whitney’s car = The car of Whitney. A lot of people leave these apostrophes out because the word is often a word without them. Example: I am going to my parents house. is wrong. You probably mean to say that you are going to your parents’ house (two parents). If it’s one parent, you would say I’m going to my mom’s house or my dad’s house. This is a very quick way to look silly, even if you’re on social media.

For most singular nouns, add an apostrophe + s

The girl’s shoes are on the wrong feet.
The teacher’s desk is messy.
What is the earth’s population?

Even if the singular word ends in an s, most people add an apostrophe + s

My boss’s office is huge.
The princess’s dress is gold.
The class’s teacher is wonderful.

For most plural nouns, just add an apostrophe

The dogs’ leashes are tangled. (multiple dogs)
Our neighbors’ yards are beautifully green. (multiple neighbors)
The planets’ orbits don’t intersect. (multiple planets)

If your plural noun does not end in an s, add apostrophe + s

The children’s toys are all over the floor.
The women’s bathroom is cleaner than the men’s.
The geese’s migration route is peculiar.

What if my proper noun ends with an s? You can just add the apostrophe or add apostrophe + s

ACCEPTED: Memphis’ best restaurants
ACCEPTED: Memphis’s best restaurants

SINGULAR: Julia Roberts’s house (The final s is optional, so just be consistent)
PLURAL: The Robertses’ house (The final s will make it too clustered. Leave it at the apostrophe)

To wrap it up, think about if your noun is singular or plural, and then place your apostrophe appropriately — without disrupting the noun — but don’t forget it! Apostrophes take the place of something in a contraction, and they show when something belongs to something or someone. They do not make nouns plural.

NEXT WEEK!

There is just so much to be said about apostrophes, especially when it comes to possession. So next week, I am going to tackle joint possession. In the meantime, if you even THINK about writing something like “Zoe and I’s favorite show is on” or “Ryan and my’s anniversary is coming up”… No! No! No! Stay tuned for next week’s episode. And know we are all worthy, smart, wonderful people, despite our grammar mistakes.

Make sure you check out other Grammar Shape-Up episodes:

Grammar Shape-Up Series: Apart vs. A Part
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Fewer vs. Less
Grammar Shape-Up Series: “Couldn’t Care Less”
Lay vs. Lie: Are You Using Them Correctly?

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