If you were to ask me about my biggest writing pet peeve, I'd tell you in a heartbeat: it's the apostrophe. It seems, sometimes, as though no one knows how to use it correctly. When I see a handwritten sign that says something like "Plastic Ring's: 25 cents," I want to cry. Or stab someone. Instead, I decided to write an article on the correct use of that annoying little piece of punctuation. Let's start with that example:
Apostrophes in Plurals
For some crazy reason, most people seem to be under the impression that a plural word requires an apostrophe. Take the above example.
"Plastic Ring's: 25 cents."
Written properly, that sign should look like this:
"Plastic Rings: 25 cents."
Listen carefully. A plural word does not ever require an apostrophe unless it is possessive.
In the above example, "ring's" is clearly a plural, and not a possessive. Why? Because the rings do not own the 25 cents. In fact, the rings are completely separate from the 25 cents. Since the word is a simple plural, the apostrophe should be removed.
"John has several cat's, but no dog's."
That sentence is incorrect, because both "cat's" and "dog's" are actually indicating a plural, not a possessive. Try amending the sentence. You should get this:
"John has several cats, but no dogs."
How about this one:
Mary Ann went to the story to buy egg's, but they were sold out.
Again, the apostrophe should be removed:
Mary Ann went to the store to buy eggs, but they were sold out.
Now that I've shown you where apostrophe's don't belong, it's time to show you where they do.
(By the way, did you catch the error in the above sentence? That's right. I shouldn't have used an apostrophe in the word "apostrophe's" because used as a plural in that sentence! )
One of the two main uses of apostrophes is in the possessive form of nouns. This, I believe, is the form that most often gets confused with the plural, so be careful. In the summary examples, I might be tricky.
Remember that we're dealing with singular possessives right now, not plural. I'll address plural possessives at the end of this section.
In a singular possessive, you almost always end the word with " 's "
That's an apostrophe followed by an "s," if it's hard to see. These are some examples:
The cat's pajamas
The bee's knees
My dog's fleas
Exceptions are pronouns, like the following:
Let's look at a few examples.
"That belongs to Geordie."
We could rewrite this in possessive form, like so:
"That is Geordie's."
Now, let's mix it up a little.
"Those birds belong to Jenny."
Is the following correct?
"Those are Jenny's bird's."
No, because we used an apostrophe in the plural of "bird's." Let's try again:
"Those are Jennys birds."
Again, no, because we forgot to put the apostrophe in Jenny's name, indicating that she possesses the birds. Here is the correct sentence:
"Those are Jenny's birds."
A small note on the possessive form of plural words. Since most plurals end with "s," adding an apostrophe plus another "s" looks ugly. Consider the following:
All three cars's upholstery needed cleaning.
The birds's nests all had eggs in them.
If you type that in Microsoft Word, you'll notice that "cars's" and "birds's" are underlined with a red squiggle. This is because the words should be written without the second "s." Like so:
All three cars' upholstery needed cleaning.
The birds' nests all had eggs in them.
See how much cleaner that looks? And the red squiggles are gone in MS Word. This is a little quirk of English grammar. In most plural possessives, you can eliminate the "s" after the apostrophe, as long as the word ends in "s." A few more examples:
The cats' jungle gym was covered in fur.
The dogs' food dishes were empty.
Last, but not least, we have conjunctions. There aren't that many of these, but they all use apostrophes! Here are the examples:
Contracted, of course, the words are:
Do you see the apostrophe rule for these words? That's right! The words have been squashed together, and letters have been removed. The apostrophes fill in the spaces where letters are missing. In most cases, it's the "o" in "not" that's been left out.
So, what about "will not?"
"Will not" is a special case, because it contracts to "won't." As you can see, the apostrophe still replaces the missing "o" from the word "not." However, the first part of the word is slightly different. This is simply because "willn't" is too awkward to say, so the language evolved and changed the word a little. This happens, with languages.
A Note on "it's" vs "its"
This is a very confusing one, and gets almost everyone at one time or another. Pay close attention.
When you are using the contracted form of "it is," you always use an apostrophe:
It is cold outside.
It is no use!
It's cold outside.
It's no use!
When you are using the possessive form of "it," you do add the "s," but you do not add the apostrophe. Consider the following:
The dog nudged the dog's food bowl, hoping to be fed.
The horse jumped over the fence around the horse's pen.
Obviously, we'd prefer to use pronouns in these sentences instead of repeating the animal names twice. Thus, using the above rule about the possessive form of "it," we get the following sentences:
The dog nudged its food bowl, hoping to be fed.
The horse jumped over the fence around its pen.
And there you have it!
If you are confused about any of this information - I know the way I laid it out might be a little funky - don't hesitate to say so. And, please, feel free to ask any questions you might have! I know that many of you already know the correct usage of the apostrophe, but I hope I can help some of the younger members who might be confused.