It’s an Apostrophe

I love to find simple, easy to use grammar tricks on the web, a link where I can go every time I need to use some form of the verb lay or lie, for instance.

So this link to simple rules for when to use an apostrophe made me pretty happy when I first glanced.  The Oatmeal presents some simple guidelines that will help you if apostrophes trouble you, but I disagree with several of their interpretations of the exceptions.

Still, their layout is snazzy, their graphics (as you can see above) are witty, and the order in which they present their concepts does basically work for me. Here’s my re-interpretation, complete with sexy examples.

So, first, is it plural? Such as:

Their backsides jiggled in the air.

Her lashes fluttered near her cheek.

If so, no need to add an apostrophe. Just let the word be its plural self with its nice letter s at the end. There are no exceptions to this rule, as The Oatmeal would have you believe.

It is, in fact, a common mistake to use apostrophe to make numbers and acronyms plural, but there is no need to add an apostrophe to make any word plural–even if the word is a number or an acronym.

INCORRECT: Unsafe sex can sometimes lead to STI’s, (that’s sexually transmitted infection).

CORRECT: Unsafe sex can sometimes lead to STIs.

I think maybe people like to add an apostrophe to an acronym to help make sure you don’t think the pluralizing s is part of the acronym, but since acronyms usually use all capital letters, the lowercase, pluralizing s really isn’t confusing. Same thing with numbers. No need to add an apostrophe when you are pluralizing a number.

INCORRECT: Since the 1980’s, many pornography images include condoms.

CORRECT: Since the 1980s, many pornography images include condoms.

Now, is it possessive? Are you relating that the noun in question owns something? If so, use an apostrophe plus the letter s:

. . . the hooker’s charm . . .

. . . her cunt’sdisposition . . .

. . . her ass’s sway . . .

. . . Chris’s lacy panties  . . .

Note in the examples above that it does not matter whether the noun ends in s or not, you still just add an apostrophe + s. This is the same for names that end in s as well as other nouns that end in s, such as penis and Charles.

. . . Charles’s penis’s foreskin . . .

As long as you’ve got just one Charles and he’s got just one penis, this should work for you. But wait. What if you do have a plural and possessive noun? Most of the time, plural words end in s, so most of the time, you will add just an apostrophe:

. . . her thighs’ sheen . . .

. . . . his biceps’ripple . . .


. . . women’s lingerie . . .

And that’s just because women, like men and geese, is a plural word that does not end in s.

Now let’s tackle the words it’s and its. These can be confusing because they breaks the rule above, “add apostrophe + s” for plurals. It is indeed, the one exception to that rule. Here’s all you have to remember:

it’s = it is

its = it possessive

It’s sexy to use good grammar. (it is)

It’s hot when you tickle my ear with your tongue. (it is)

But I don’t like the nibbling on its lobe. (it possessive)

This shoulder always gets sunburned; can’t you tell  by its freckles? (it possessive)

Think of it’s as a contraction, like can’t and wouldn’t. Just as you replace the spelled-out word not with the contracted n’t, you replace the word is in it is, with apostrophe + s.

And there it is, perhaps not as graphically rich as they did it at The Oatmeal, but at least a little more correct.

    • Karen Ouse
    • January 26th, 2010

    Hi Kristy!

    This is great–very clear and streamlined with the added help of engaging examples. I’m glad to know that I’ve been using my apostrophes correctly with the exception of acronyms; I’ve gone back and forth between using an apostrophe and not thinking that I’m getting it right 50% of the time!

    I also have been in the dark about apostrophes following words that end in “s.” I swear I learned in my English classes YEARS ago that you never just add an apostrophe and an “s” to words that end in “s.” Do you know if the grammar has morphed in the past…um…20+ years?

    Again, great, really fun article!

    Karen Ouse

    • Karen, thanks so much for your comment. I think it’s the other way around, that nowadays, it’s becoming acceptable to just add the apostrophe when the noun ends in s. I’m a little old-fashioned in my approach above. I think it also helps to think about how you pronounce these possessive words. For example, you don’t say, “Chris’ lacy panties,” you say, “Chris’s lacy panties,” right?

    • Tom Holub
    • January 26th, 2010

    You might be interested to know that, until the 19th century, the rule for “it’s” was exactly opposite: “it’s” was the possessive of “it”, and “’tis” was the abbreviated form of “it is.”

    My personal practice is not to add an s when forming the possessive of a word ending in s, but I’m relatively agnostic on the subject.

    • mira
    • January 27th, 2010

    Loads of fun. Thanks.

  1. Tom, I am indeed interested. Thanks for the link.

    There’s this whole other school of thought to consider around apostrophes, actually, that apostrophes are always part of a contraction and that possessives are just a contraction for . . . darn, I can’t remember what it was . . . Kristy has, maybe? Kristy has = Kristy’s? Something like that.

    Mira, so glad to have you reading. Thanks for the kind words.

    • Tom Holub
    • January 30th, 2010

    One more note on apostrophes and acronyms/abbreviations: It’s generally considered better style to avoid using an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation, but there are times when it makes the sentence more readable; for example, when the abbreviation consists of only one letter (“minding your P’s and Q’s”).

    (N.B.: “acronym” properly refers to an abbreviation which forms a word. So, “AIDS” is an acronym, while “BDSM” is merely an abbreviation.)

  2. Thanks for the abbreviation/acronym clarity, Tom. But I must disagree with your use of apostrophe to pluralize either of them or any stand-alone letter. Why not “mind your Ps and Qs”? What is more readable about making it look like there is something belonging to the P and the Q?

    • Tom Holub
    • February 2nd, 2010

    Imagine if the phrase were instead, “Mind your Ss and As.” Clearly this scans better as, “Mind your S’s and A’s.” You wouldn’t want to head out to the Coliseum for the As game.

    Style manuals are split on this question. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using an apostrophe for plurals of lowercase single letters only, and certainly, lowercase pluralized as are more ambiguous than uppercase pluralized As in text. IBM’s style manual recommends using an apostrophe only for certain letters (a,e,i,o,u, and m, the last because “Ms” can be ambiguous, Ms. Lin Billuni). I still prefer using an apostrophe for all single letters, for consistency’s sake.

    I also think if you have a single numerical digit, it’s better to use an apostrophe to pluralize it, although better still to spell out the number (so, “twos” instead of “2’s”).

    The most important grammar rule is that the purpose of grammar rules is to clarify, not to proscribe. Choose styles which are likely to make your communication clear.

  3. The letter s is problematic, I agree. But I think I would go with italics for clarification before I used an unnecessary apostrophe. “S’s” still looks to me like the one, singular letter s owns something.

    And yeah, spell-out those numbers and you don’t have to wrestle with this issue at all.

    Finally, I wholly agree that the only really important grammar rule is to use grammar to make yourself clear.

    Tom, thanks so much for your participation on my blog! I hope you’ll keep reading!

  1. May 27th, 2010
  2. April 29th, 2011
  3. May 18th, 2011
  4. December 30th, 2011

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