The Red Pen: Your Abuse of Apostrophes’ Make’s Me Want to Die

We Need to Talk About Grammar is a weekly feature in which I complain about grammatical mistakes I encounter all too often. Feel free to commiserate below, and check out the archives here!


In these glorious days of letting just anyone have access to a computer and spew whatever bullshit they want into the blogosphere (see: me), the apostrophe has become perhaps the most maligned, misused, and misunderstood punctuation mark.

At least once a day, and quite often much more than once a day, I run into misused apostrophes. Chances are that you do, too. Here are the many ways you can misuse an apostrophe (I was going to order them from most to least rage-inducing, but they all make me want to pull my hair out, so):

1. Adding an apostrophe to a plural noun

Simple plurals never, ever, EVER take an apostrophe. Not regular nouns (apples, oranges), not proper nouns (Mondays, Fridays), not names (Joneses, Thompsons). Neither do numbers or letters:

I wish I had been born in the 1970s.

Janie got 3 As and 3 Bs on her report card this quarter.

Don’t do it. Just don’t.

Vol. 12 Katniss gif

2. Adding an apostrophe to a third-person-singular verb

Check out the title of this post. It should make you very uncomfortable. (If it doesn’t, I don’t think we can be friends.) The first reason it should make you uncomfortable is discussed in #1. The second reason it should make you uncomfortable is because I wantonly added an apostrophe to “makes,” and, as you and I and anyone with half a brain should know, verbs don’t take apostrophes unless they’re contractions (see what I did there?). All too often, I see apostrophes added to verb forms that end in s (that is, third person singular forms) and it drives me up a wall. I can understand the impulse, I guess, thinking that the s needs the apostrophe, but it doesn’t. I promise.

A good way to remember this is to ask yourself if the verb you’re adding the apostrophe to is a contraction (combination of two words). If it isn’t, don’t add the apostrophe.

3. Adding an apostrophe to a possessive pronoun

Okay, okay, this one is legitimately confusing because possessive nouns (both regular and proper) always take an apostrophe before the s (the butcher’s knife, a Bachelor’s degree, Mary’s sweater). But possessive pronouns don’t.

The most common mistake I see is using it’s instead of its. (Its is the correct form of the possessive pronoun; it’s is a contraction meaning it is.) But the use of her’s and their’s is becoming troublingly common, and it makes me sad.

Vol. 12 Smad gif

4. Misplacing apostrophes in plural possessive nouns

You know, I think this one really deserves its own post. Check back next week for a post dedicated entirely to plural possessive nouns!

5. Forgetting apostrophes

This doesn’t bother me quite as much as the heedless insertion of apostrophes where they don’t belong, because I will generally give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume it was just a typo. Especially in contractions, because even though I know cant and wont are actual words that don’t mean the same as can’t and won’t, 99% of the time the person means the latter and I realize that. Chalking it up to laziness or an honest mistake makes me less ragey. (Plus, I know spellcheck doesn’t always catch them.)

 

What are your apostrophe-related pet peeves? Come on, let it all out.

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10 thoughts on “The Red Pen: Your Abuse of Apostrophes’ Make’s Me Want to Die

  1. I don’t know whether I should put an apostrophe-s after a possessive noun that ends with “s.” Is it “James’,” or is it “James’s”? I see both in things that I read.

    • There’s some debate, actually. Next week I have a “part 2” of this post coming out that addresses this, but spoiler alert: they’re both acceptable and there are a variety of rules you can use. The one I remember learning in high school was to use ‘s with one-syllable words that end in s—so James’s would be acceptable—but with words of two or more syllables, just use the apostrophe. The other rule I’ve recently discovered is more pronunciation-based: would you pronounce “James’s”/”James'” as James-iz or James? However you pronounce it would decide how you write it. Really as long as you’re consistent, either should be fine.

  2. Oh, apostrophes! i’m sure during late night blogging I’ve put my own inappropriate apostrophes to use on occasion but I do get ticked when I see them used willy nilly. My own pet peeve, apostrophes in dates that aren’t possessive. Like the 1980s. Unless you’re talking 80’s music, seeing an apostrophe in “1980’s” drives me bananas!

    • I remember getting corrected on this probably almost a decade ago now and feeling soooo embarrassed—I *knew* that plurals (like dates) didn’t take an apostrophe, but I’d always seen it with one, and had assumed it was correct. It still bugs me, but it’s so ubiquitous that I can’t really judge (I’ll still always edit it out, though).

  3. Oh dear. I think I’ve been guilty of a few of these. I suppose if I stick with, when in doubt, don’t, I will be right more often.

  4. THE ABSOLUTE WORST is when news articles try to use them as ‘air-quotes’ to emphasize certain parts of a title. but anyone of our generation knows you do that to add sarcasm. It drives me up the wall to see BBC with titles like: Indiana emergency for HIV ‘epidemic’ or DNA of ‘an entire nation’ assessed.

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