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Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive

Apostrophes’ chief purpose is to show possession, but these marks have other functions, too. They alert readers when, and where, one or more letters are missing from a word, such as the no that is dropped when cannot becomes can’t. Or they create separation to avoid confusion when two elements are combined for special reasons. For example, in When Colin writes a’s, they look like u’s, the apostrophes prevent us from thinking that the writer meant as and us. It’s hard to imagine any credible writer not using apostrophes for a’s and u’s, but beyond that, apostrophe unanimity is hard to find.

Apostrophes have a complicated relationship with plurals. Different writers have different approaches when writing the plural forms of abbreviations, some letters and numbers, and words that do not normally take plurals.

• What’s the plural of an abbreviation with periods, like Ph.D.? There’s no right answer. Some write Ph.D.s, some write Ph.D.’s.

• Most writers use apostrophes when pluralizing single capital letters (I earned three A’s), but there are some who would write three As. With groups of two or more capital letters, apostrophes seem less necessary (two new MPs, learn your ABCs), but some writers insist on them.

• Single-digit numbers are usually spelled out, but when they aren’t, you are just as likely to see 2s and 3s as 2’s and 3’s. With double digits and above, many (but not everyone) regard the apostrophe as superfluous. Most writers nowadays favor the 1900s, but some go with the 1900’s. If numerals are used to identify decades, the ’30s is widely used, but you will also see the 30’s, and occasionally even the ’30’s.

• A keyboard caveat: it takes extra effort to generate an apostrophe when it is the first character in numbers or words like the ’30s or ’tis (for “it is”). If you’re not careful, you’ll instead type an opening single quotation mark (), which is a backward and upside-down apostrophe. The result will be the30s and ‘tis, which finicky readers consider an indefensible lapse.

• Making words plural with ’s is usually a big mistake, but some writers, as a courtesy to readers, will add ’s to words that don’t ordinarily become plural, as in no if’s, and’s, or but’s, or here are some do’s and don’t’s. Since two apostrophes in one word look clunky, you are more likely to see do’s and don’ts, which looks better, although don’ts is inconsistent with do’s. A better option might be to use italics to establish differentiation: no ifs, ands, or buts; some dos and don’ts.

• Let’s close with a possessive-apostrophe principle that confuses a lot of people. For the plurals of familiar compound nouns like driver’s license and master’s degree, the apostrophe stays the same; the plurals are driver’s licenses and master’s degrees. You may ask why not drivers’ licenses—after all, we’re talking about more than one driver, aren’t we? Well, yes and no. The driver’s in two driver’s licenses denotes that each license was issued to one driver only. The same reasoning applies to master’s degrees.

No punctuation mark causes more confusion and dissent than apostrophes. If we could get together on the rules, maybe people would use them more.


Pop Quiz

Find the incorrect sentence(s).

1. You used too many ands in that paragraph.
2. Today’s multiplication exercise will focus on 6’s and 7’s.
3. The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals.
4. In her note, the Ls all looked like Es.


Pop Quiz Answer

Three of the sentences would be acceptable to at least some editors and publishers. The one incorrect sentence is No. 3: The decade of the 80s was marked by scandals. Make it 80s, with an apostrophe.

Posted on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at 3:29 pm


8 Responses to “Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive”

  1. Bob Price says:

    The marks you’ve got after “6″ and “7″ in sentence two look exactly like the mark before “80s” in sentence three, yet in your answer key you’ve rendered the mark before “80s” differently and called it an “apostrophe” (and apparently italicized the word as well). So what are those other marks? By the way, none of the marks in this exercise look like what you’ve described above as a single quotation mark, if that was what you were going for. I’m completely baffled by your answer and stand by mine. Sentence three is fine as it is, and sentence one looks awful.

    • The difference between an apostrophe and a single left quotation mark, if done properly, is subtle. If you are unable to see any difference, you may wish to try viewing this grammar tip using a different internet browser.

  2. Ravi Bedi says:

    What is the logic behind italicizing ’80s? Doesn’t make sense. (A lot of things in English do not).

    • In the sentence you are asking about, “Make it ’80s, with an apostrophe,” the term ’80s is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself. That is why it is italicized.

  3. Wendy Sorenson says:

    I am writing a resume, every grammar checker I have used states I have a Possessive apostrophe error with my sentence:
    Managed all events coordination organizing, location, staff, from set up to tear down

    Is it an apostrophe error or just a poorly written statement?

    • It’s a little of both. The grammar checker is most likely referring to the phrase “events coordination.” It seems that you are writing bullet points or some other kind of list for your resume, not sentences. We recommend rewriting the point in question:
      Managed all events, including coordination, organization, location, and staff, from setup to tear-down.

  4. Adam says:

    If I were creating an ad for 2015s hottest new products, would 2015s or 2015′s be correct? Confusion in the marketing department!



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