Thursday, October 24, 2019

Taming the Fearsome Apostrophe

Ah, dearies, it's so good to visit you in the absence of my sweet niece, the Style Maven. I'm filling in for her because she's quite involved at the moment with another project. However, she sends her greetings and has asked me to share with you some pertinent thoughts on the uses and abuses of the often misunderstood apostrophe.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style Seventeenth Edition, the apostrophe—which is not to be confused with its identical twin, the single quotation mark—serves one of three purposes in a sentence: it shows possession; it indicates a contraction, or it signifies the possessive nature of certain expressions.

Let's first consider singular and plural possession:
The cat's meows awakened me. ( 1 cat)
The cats' meows awakened me. (2+ cats)
Placement of the apostrophe determines the singularity or plurality of cats. If it sits between cat and the s, it denotes just one. If more than one cat is involved, it follows the the plural word cats.

Apostrophes should never appear in the plural form of a family name unless it shows possession. For example: The Smiths live here. Never write The Smith's live here or address an envelope to The Smith's. This is especially important to remember when sending out wedding or party invitations or seasonal greetings. However, you would say the Smiths' house, denoting more than one of the Smiths own the house.

One exception: suppose the word is already plural—such as people or women. In this case, possession is treated as though it were a singular noun.
The people's choice indicated their mindset.
The women's club meets on Tuesday.
We had fun at my grandchildren's picnic.

Unlike some of the rules for showing possession, contractions are quite straightforward in their need for apostrophes. Here are a few examples:
don't for do not,
can't for cannot,
they've  for they have,
and so on.

What about compound expressions? These, too, are typically uncomplicated.
My father-in-law's truck stalled on the highway.
His bride-to-be's mother decorated the wedding cake.

One final thought: occasionally possessives can replace of in certain phrases.
In two days' time he will be home. (In two days (plural) he will be home.)
I will earn a month's vacation next year. (I will earn a month (singular) of vacation next year.)

For further discussion and examples of the apostrophe's versatile nature, consult The Chicago Manual of Style. It has a lot to say about the really not-so-fearsome apostrophe. Meantime, watch out for these little marks of punctuation that can make a big difference in the meaning of a sentence. They may seem confusing, but they only want to be understood so they can do their job right.

See you next time, dearies.

Style Maven Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her through websites: and


  1. Great post, Linda. I can always use a little brush-up.

  2. Thanks, Polly. The research (CMOS) for it was full of reminders for me.

  3. Love those apostrophes! And commas! And ellipses!


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