Self-Editing Tips: Apostrophe

Apostrophes are not that simple, no matter what people might say. As English language has evolved, their use has become increasingly complex. It doesn’t help that different style guides give contrasting advice regarding its use. I am an editor and in my line of work, I see even experienced writers getting confused when it comes to these little pests. If you can get just this one thing right while self-editing, you’ll save your editors a lot of time and effort. Believe me, they’ll love you for it.

Apostrophes are always the closing single quotation marks. So, the first thing to remember is that the tail of the apostrophe always points to the left—something to watch out for if you’re starting a word with an apostrophe. For example: ’Twas dark outside. The reason we need to pay special attention is that most writing programs like MS Word autocorrect the opening apostrophe ’ to a single opening quotation mark ‘ like this. You’ll have to manually change it back.

Apostrophes are mostly used for three purposes:

  1. To specify contractions or omissions.
  2. To indicate possession.
  3. For plurals.

Let’s explore each of these one by one.

Contractions/Omissions

These are used to show that a letter (or more) has been left out. To check if we’ve used the contraction correctly, you might need to expand it and check. Here are some examples:

You’re late for dinner = You are late for dinner.

He’d like some ice cream = He would like some ice cream.

It’s a long walk home = It is a long walk home.
It’s been a long night = It has been a long night.

Note: Be careful not to confuse it’s with its. The latter is a possessive pronoun (and a topic for another blog post) not a contraction, and so it doesn’t take an apostrophe. Did you know that it’s and its are among the most common confusing words?

Also note: The only case where we use two apostrophes if two letters have been left out is when they are separated by another letter. For example: rock ’n’ roll. And make sure both the tails are pointing left.

Possessive Apostrophes

When indicating possession, we add an apostrophe after the thing that is doing the possessing.

Apostrophes for singular nouns is simple—just add an apostrophe followed by an s. For example:

Tim’s shoes = The shoes of Tim.

This situation can get tricky if the name ends with an s such as Rob Williams or Miley Cyrus (and this is where I see most authors tripping up). To show possession, you need to add an apostrophe after the s. But remember: There’s no fixed rule about adding another s after the apostrophe. You could drop the additional s if it causes difficulty in pronunciation. Follow your instincts and write it as you’d speak it. If you’re confused, read it aloud and see if how you wrote it makes sense. For example:

Did you see Miley Cyrus’s new video?” makes more sense than saying “Did you see Miley Cyrus’ new video?” But “Rob Williams’ new video” sounds better than “Rob Williams’s new video.”

But what if our noun was plural? In such cases, we need to add the s first to make the word plural and then add the apostrophe. For example:

The farmers’ market” means a market of many farmers. If we had written it as “The farmer’s market,” it would have meant the market of one farmer.

The same rule applies for family names too. Where you put the apostrophe depends on whether you are talking about the whole family or just one member.

In cases of plural names ending with an s, in case we want to refer to the whole family, we need to make their name plural by adding -es and then an apostrophe. For example:

The Woodses’ house is as pretty as they come.

If the house belonged to any one member, we would have said: Mr. Woods’s house is as pretty as they come.

However, not all plurals are made by adding an s or an -es, are they? There are irregular plurals (woman, but women) and to make their possessives, we need to add the apostrophe and then an s. For example:

The women’s section has better choices.

Note: Possessive pronouns don’t take an apostrophe. Remember “its”? 😉

Plurals

To specify plurals of lower-case letters, use an apostrophe. For example:

Do’s and don’ts of fiction writing. Because “dos and don’ts of fiction writing” won’t make much sense, would it?

To specify plurals of upper-case letters, you can safely drop the apostrophe as there is no ambiguity as such. For example:

The students need their IDs to enter the building.

Further Reading:

I highly recommend Fucking Apostrophes by Simon Griffin. That small book packs a punch.

For style related information regarding apostrophes, check out The Chicago Manual of Style if you use US English or New Hart’s Rules if you use UK English.

A final thought:

We are humans. We will make mistakes. So, don’t beat yourself up if you misplace an apostrophe or two. And if you have a doubt or a question, please feel free to comment and ask. 😊

Are you a pro when it comes to apostrophes or do you find them confusing? Did this post help to put things in perspective? Let me know.

Coming up tomorrow: B for Blurbs. See you with a new tip.
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– Dola.

Dola

Fiction editor, Author, Bibliophile.

18 thoughts on “Self-Editing Tips: Apostrophe

  1. Awesome post. Can so relate to this, the tail facing left and all that. One thing I have consistently noted is when apostrophe is wrongly used when mentioning the year or an era. In the 1970s or 80s – where is the need for one? Unless we say, he’s an 80’s hero. Enjoyed reading this one Dola 😀

    1. So true, Sundari. You pointed out another common mistake regarding dates. I’d also like to point out that when in doubt, especially in fiction, we can always spell out the decade to avoid any confusion.

  2. I’ve been writing and editing full time for a couple of years now and I still have to say “it is” or not as the case may be in my head to know whether or not to put the apostrophe in lol
    Debbie

  3. So looking forward to your whole series for A-Z! I will definitely refer back to this the next time I trip myself up over an apostrophe (which is fortunately not often!)

  4. This is a really great idea: doing the alphabet with common writing/grammar errors. Apostrophe is one I’ve seen used. i have a hard time with it when people’s last name ends in s because the double s just doesn’t look right but the single s is incorrect.

    1. You are not alone. I’ve seen many writers struggle with it. Even I have to stop and think before putting an apostrophe when a person’s name ends with an s!

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