10 kinds of apostrophe mistakes—and how to avoid them

Plurals and possessives can confound even veteran writers, and style guides differ on punctuation of numerals and single letters. Here’s some help.

Considering how many ways the apostrophe can be employed, erroneous use of that punctuation mark is widespread.

Here are brief discussions of 10 categories of apostrophe abuse (including one writers and editors must let stand, even though it may pain them to do so).

1. Plurals

Writing the plural form of a noun in which an apostrophe precedes the plural s, such as when taxi’s is written instead if taxis, is a common error. (This mistake is known as a greengrocer’s apostrophe due to its ubiquity in handwritten—and even printed—store signs.)

2. Pronouns

Pronouns are followed by an apostrophe and s only as contractions (for example, he’s). Possessive pronouns (such as theirs and yours) never include an apostrophe. The possessive pronoun its does not take a pronoun; the contraction it’s (meaning it is) does.

3. Separate/shared possession

When two or more people or other entities are described as separately owning something, each name should be in possessive form: “John’s and Jane’s houses are the same color.” However, when they share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the latter name only: “John and Jane’s house is just down the block.”

4. Possessive form of a surname

That shingle on your neighbor’s porch should not read, “The Brown’s house,” unless your neighbor’s legal name is “The Brown.” A sign identifying the residence of the Browns should read “The Browns’ house” (or simply “The Browns”).

5. Plural form of an abbreviation

No apostrophe is required with plurals of abbreviations. Write, for example, “They disarmed or detonated several IEDs” (not IED’s).

6. Plural form of a numeral

In the rare case of indicating more than one instance of a numeral, do not use an apostrophe: “Write three 7s on a piece of paper” (not 7’s).

7. Span of years

Some publications persist in using an apostrophe in a reference to a span of years, but that form is outdated: Write, for example, “The style, which flourished briefly in the 1960s, made a comeback several decades later” (not 1960’s) and “He continued to work well into his 70s” (not 70’s).

Generally, an apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive (“It was 1985’s longest-reigning Top 40 hit”), though this style is awkward. (An exception is use of a number to stand in for a person, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number, as in “It was No. 13’s lucky day.”)

8. Plural form of a word used as a word

Don’t apostrophize the conjunctions in “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” or the counterpoints in “A helpful list of dos and don’ts follows.” (Do, however, retain the intrinsic apostrophe in the plural form of don’t.)

9. Plural form of a letter used as a letter

Even when a letter is italicized, it still looks awkward to simply place an s next to it to indicate plurality, so do insert an apostrophe: “How many m’s do you spell hmm with?” (Follow this rule even when, in the case of an expression such as “Mind your p’s and q’s,” italicization isn’t necessary.) Also, Associated Press style recommends that writers include an apostrophe when pluralizing capital letters: “She received only A’s and B’s on her last report card.”

10. Brand names

Many brand names, such as Starbucks Coffee, that technically should include apostrophes don’t, for one of two reasons (or both): A company decides that the brand name and/or logo look better without an apostrophe, or it reasons that it’s better to omit the punctuation mark so that people typing the URL for the company’s website into a Web browser or searching for it (or for other references to the company) online won’t have difficulty doing so. Yes, “Starbucks Coffee” is a “mistake,” but one the company has the right to make (and writers and editors have an obligation to honor).

A version of this article originally appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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This article first appeared on Ragan.com in Feb. 2016.


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