The Dreaded Apostrophe: A Quick Cheatsheet

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I have to start with a rant. If you’re going to correct someone, be sure, first, that you actually got it right yourself. Recently I had breakfast at a lovely bakery not far from where I live. A sign near the tables noted that diners were asked to put their tray back in its place. Some cleverer-than-thou person had added an apostrophe between the “it” and the “s.”

The dreaded apostrophe. Let’s all take a quick refresher class on its use:

Contractions take apostrophes:

  • It’s going to rain today!

  • I’m reading that book now.

  • She’s happy to be leaving at four.

  • He can’t finish the assignment.

All these sentences involve contractions. A contraction is a device showing us that some letters have been omitted, and is used in speaking and in informal writing. It is becomes it’s; I am becomes I’m; she is becomes she’s; cannot becomes can’t.

Noun possessives take apostrophes:

  • Mary’s car is in the repair shop.

  • My mother-in-law’s letter was short.

  • We went to Clara and Tom’s show. (Note that only the second name takes the apostrophe and the s.)

  • James’s music is still in the hall. (Even though James ends in an s, the Chicago Manual of Style requires an apostrophe and an additional s—James is still singular. On the other hand, the AP style guide is fine with just one apostrophe, so your mileage may vary.)

  • It took five hours’ walking to get there! (Note that a plural places the apostrophe after the s.)

Pronoun possessives DO NOT take apostrophes:

  • The book should be in its place.

  • That raincoat is his.

  • Those are ours!

Dates do not take apostrophes

(The exception appears to be the unfortunate style guide employed by the New York Times):

  • I haven’t seen him since the 1990s.

  • He was born in the 80s.

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Master these few rules and you will not make the common mistakes we all see out in the wild, often called the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”:

  • Banana’s are .49 a pound!

  • Put it back in it’s place!

  • That book is her’s!

By now, you should be able to tell why the three examples above are incorrect.

Spread the word!