The apostrophe is a single raised comma with a top curl [’]. It performs two functions in English:
- indicates a relationship (usually ownership but not always) between two nouns;
- indicates that a word is contracted or abbreviated.
The “possession” apostrophe
The possession apostrophe indicates that certain relationships exist between a noun and another noun.
Where does the apostrophe go?
For a singular noun, the apostrophe goes between the noun and the “s” indicating possession.
The apostrophe after the singular form of the noun indicates that one participant “owns” the another noun (or pronoun):
- The soldier’s rations: One participant, the soldier, has rations;
- The team’s locker room: One collective participant, the team, has a locker room.
For a plural noun, the apostrophe follows the “s” ending the plural noun. For plural nouns that do not end in “s” (children, women, men etc) the apostrophe goes between the noun and the “s” indicating possession.
The apostrophe after the plural form of a noun indicates that several participants “own” with another noun (or pronoun):
- The soldiers’ rations: The rations are the rations of several soldiers.
- The women’s presentation: The presentation is a presentation of several women.
- The dogs’ boarding facility: There is a boarding facility that is for dogs.
- The three boys’ bikes: Several participants, three boys, own bikes.
The problem of “its” (and other possessive pronouns)
We are used to the idea that the apostrophe expresses possession, so it comes as a surprise that “its,” the personal pronoun that indicates possession, does not contain an apostrophe:
The possessive pronoun its
- The committee refused to share its findings.
The contraction it’s
- It’s not my problem.
The other possessive pronouns are (note they DO NOT have apostrophes):
- his/hers: The car is his/hers.
- theirs: Theirs is the only option for decent coffee.
- yours: The choice is yours.
- mine: The pleasure was mine.
- ours: Ours is the oldest house on the block.
- whose: They hid from the kid whose ball they took.
It wouldn’t be English without an exception:
The only word that stands for a name, can express possession and does so with an apostrophe is one’s:
- One’s integrity is one’s castle.
- Those ones’ outfits are adorable.
A side note: There are those who argue that because one behaves just like any noun, it is not a pronoun at all: It is a noun.
When creating the possessive form of proper nouns, the rules are dependent on the style used:
For both AP and Chicago style, if a singular proper noun does not end in s, add ‘s
- Bill Clinton’s contribution to the success of the event was invaluable.
On the other hand, if a singular proper noun (a name) ends in s, Chicago and AP handle apostrophes differently.
In AP style, if a proper noun ends in s or an s sound, add an apostrophe only.
- Chris‘ exam scores were higher than any other students.
In Chicago style, if a proper nouns ends in s add ‘s.
- Last year Kansas’s legislature passed a law.
It is common error to place an apostrophe before or after the s in a number that is not a possessive.
With just a moment of consideration, it is easy to distinguish numbers in need of an apostrophe from those not:
Needs an apostrophe (indicating possession)
- We should all agree that 1980s’ styles are embarrassing.
Does NOT need an apostrophe
- Students are less prepared in writing skills since the 1980s, according to college professors.
The correct use of the apostrophe with initials is the same as numbers: Use the apostrophe only when the initials “own” the noun. If they don’t, then don’t.
Again, it is easy to distinguish when an apostrophe is necessary:
- The DOD’s policy on gays in the military has changed significantly in the past 20 years.
- The Department of Defense’s policy on gays in the military has changed significantly in the past 20 years.
And when it is not necessary:
- Early ICBMs had limited accuracy that limited their use to the largest targets such as cities.
- Early intercontinental ballistic missiles had limited accuracy that limited their use to the largest targets such as cities.
- The committee held Susan’s opinions in high regard.
We know we do NOT use an apostrophe with possessive pronouns:
- My choice to leave was mine alone.
But when the noun in question is a gerund, knowledge goes out the window. Once the -ing noun appears, we forget the rules of possession. (Or maybe it’s not understanding that -ing nouns exist?)
These sentences make no sense:
- Tim leaving made continuing in the job difficult for me.
- Him leaving made continuing in the job difficult for me.
Remember the nouns have a POSSESSIVE relationship.
- His leaving made continuing in the job difficult for me.
- Tim’s leaving made continuing in the job difficult for me.
If you are struggling with understanding this, look at it this way.
There is a different meaning in:
- Tim, leaving, disappointed me.
- As he was leaving, Tim disappointed me.
- Tim’s leaving disappointed me.
- The fact that Tim left disappointed me.
Basically “Tim leaving made continuing in the job difficult for me” is the equivalent of putting two random nouns together: “Tim departure made continuing in the job difficult for me.”
The apostrophe marks the fact that a word has been shortened or contracted:
- rock ’n’ roll, (rock and roll) ’cause (because) ’tween (between) o’er (over) ’80s (1980s, 1680s),
or that two words have been contracted :
- couldn’t (could not) won’t (will not) could’ve (could have) we’ll (we will/shall) let’s (let us)