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4 Ways Apostrophes Are Mangled Every Day

Misuse of HowStuffWorks
Misuse of HowStuffWorks

Despite its itty-bitty stature, the apostrophe manages to confound most of us from time to time. If you think some of them are archaic or pointless, well, we don't make the grammar rules. We just follow them! Here are some common apostrophe gaffes to avoid. (Note, we're referring to American grammar rules here. Other countries might have different conventions.)

1. Pluralizing Last Names

Every year, holiday cards arrive sending season's greetings to their intended recipients. And every year, punctuation purists groan in despair when confronted with a card from "The Smith's" or "The Lewis's."

Hear ye, hear ye: Apostrophes make names possessive. Not plural. When you send a card from your family, it's from more than one person and is not possessive in nature. Possessive simply means that something belongs to someone. So "John's house" is another way of saying "the house of John" or "the house that belongs to John."

To make a name plural, simply add an "s" (for names ending in a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, t, u, v, w, y) or an "es" (for names ending in s, x, z, ch, sh). No apostrophe needed.

So, if your last name is "Hitch," the card should be from "The Hitches." "Cory" turns into "The Corys," (no matter what Microsoft Word autocorrect tries to tell you). "Heathen" turns into "The Heathens," Jones turns into "The Joneses," and so on.

2. Mixing Up Singular and Plural Apostrophes

This apostro-faux-pas can trip up the best of us. "The possessive of a singular is spelled 's: He is his mother's son. The possessive of a regular plural is spelled s': He is his parents' son, or, with a same-sex couple, He is his mothers' son," writes Harvard University professor Steven Pinker in his book, "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century."

3. Using Apostrophes Where None Are Needed

The randomly appearing apostrophe is everywhere, from gas station signs to social media. "Happy birthday to my twin son's!" or "Super Bowl Ticket's for Sale" are prime examples. Again, this is a question of whether something is possessive or plural. Let's take the case of the Super Bowl tickets. The scalper presumably has more than one ticket for sale so we need a plural "s." However, the tickets are not possessive — they are not showing any type of ownership of anything written on the sign. So, no apostrophe is needed. It should say "Super Bowl Tickets for Sale."

4. Treating a Word Like a Contraction When It Isn't

The apostrophe can be used as a stand-in for some missing letters. This shortened word is called a contraction. So "you're" is a contraction of "you are." The problem comes when there's a soundalike word – "your" — with a different meaning. This confuses some folks, and they add an apostrophe to "your" even though it's not needed.

Although apostrophes are fine and dandy when showing possession for nouns ("the dog's bone," "my husband's beer") possessive pronouns like their, your, its and whose don't need apostrophes. Why is that? "Deep in the mists of time, someone decided that an apostrophe doesn't belong in a possessive pronoun, and you'll just have to live with it," Pinker notes in his book.

Baffled? When all else fails, try reading your sentence aloud to see if it's possessive or in need of a contraction. If you were to get rid of a contraction and use all the words involved, would your sentence make sense? Here are some examples:

You're a fantastic dancer. (You are!)

It's a gorgeous day out. (It is, isn't it?)

The kite got loose from it's string. (Wrong. This means, "The kite got loose from it is string," which makes zero sense. The sentence should say, The kite got loose from its string.)

They're protesting the inauguration over there. (Yes, they are, aren't they?)

Their house is so well-decorated it makes me jealous. (Keeping up with the Joneses, huh? "Their house" is possessive, so no need for an apostrophe.)

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