Writing Tip Wednesday: When (not) to Use an Apostrophe

Okay guys, my writing tip is here early this month because I’ve been seeing abused apostrophes everywhere. It may actually drive me crazy.

Photo credit: http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/hdwyer/apostrophe/

Pop Quiz: Which option is correct?
A) The Smiths live here.
B) The Smith’s live here.
C) The Smiths’ live here.
Answer: A) The Smiths live here.

What about this one?

A) Its’ time to go home.
B) It’s time to go home.
C) Its time to go home.
Answer: B) It’s time to go home.

Why, you ask?

Well, after doing a little research to make sure I have it straight myself, I have a few rules for you. But first, let me give a disclaimer: I use the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. Some of these rules will be different if you use a different style guide.

If a word is possessive (showing ownership), you should use an apostrophe.

For example:
I read Jonathan’s book on the plane. (NOT I read Jonathans book on the plane.)

If it’s a contraction, you should use an apostrophe.

For example:
Jessica was disappointed Spencer couldn’t come. (Couldn’t is a contraction for could not. The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.)
or
Let’s pretend our work is done and go to the beach. (Let’s is a contraction for let us. Again, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.)

If a word is plural and possessive, you should use an apostrophe and an s. If a word already ends in s, just use an apostrophe after the s that’s already there. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, but I won’t go into them here.)

For example:
She washed the children’s clothes.
She washed the kids’ clothes.

If a word is plural and NOT possessive, you should NOT use an apostrophe.

For example:
She asked the players for their autographs.
(NOT She asked the player’s for their autograph’s. Gross. Please don’t do that!)

The Smiths left early because their kids were getting grouchy. (NOT The Smith’s left early because their kids were getting grouchy.)

Let me pause here for a minute. I see the mistake in the example above more than any other apostrophe mistake. It drives me crazy and is, in fact, what prompted this post. Please, please, please don’t add an apostrophe to a last name unless it’s showing ownership.

This example shows ownership:
That dog is the Whites’. (The apostrophe goes after the s because we’re talking about more than one White. The s makes it plural so you know the dog belongs to the whole family. The apostrophe shows ownership.)

An example where a plural is needed and there’s no ownership:
She went to the cabin with the Andersons.

And a few really practical examples:
If you’re addressing a card to the entire Young family, you could write “To the Youngs.” No apostrophe.

If the card is from the entire Jones family, you could write “Love, the Joneses.” (Last names follow the same es rules as other words—if it already ends in an s, it needs an es to make it plural.)

And then there’s it’s and its . . .

This is an exception to the rules above.
If you mean it is, then it should have an apostrophe: I wonder if it’s time?
If you want to show ownership, don’t use an apostrophe: She gave the dog its dinner.

In the interest of not overwhelming you, I’ll stop here and post a few more apostrophe rules next week. So if you have questions about apostrophes, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll try to answer them next Wednesday!

For more information and a little history of the apostrophe, click here.