I know I shouldn't have dropped out in sixth grade
June 24, 2005 10:24 PM   Subscribe

Stupid apostrophe's (see?). Help me not look like an idiot.

I don't get this plural/possessive stuff. I'm a smart guy. I'm a literate guy. I'm a well read man of taste and discretion. I like to think I write well -- but what's with the apostrophes (see, not one there, or should there be?).

I get the 'it is' conjunction part, but that's about it.
posted by cedar to Writing & Language (41 answers total)
Gotta rush, so can't write a proper explanation, but there is a fair chance someone will link to Angry Flower. In which case, quick note: Angry Flower oversimplifies things. Eg. "it's" doesn't necessarily mean "it is", it might. for example, be used in place of "it has".
posted by -harlequin- at 10:38 PM on June 24, 2005

Don't feel bad. These are tricky.

I'm going to go out on a limb and give advice without checking my grammar book first...

If the subject is singular, then the apostrophe comes before the 's'. If plural, then after.

It might be easiest to explain by examples.

I have one brother and he has a red car. "My brother's red car is new."

I have two brothers who share ownership of the red car. "My brothers' red car is new."

If a singular word ends in s, the above guidelines still work.
"My boss's new office has a window." (In this case, you can hear the extra s.)

However, "My bosses' new office has a window." This means you have more than one boss and they all share the same office.

For plurals that don't end in s, then the word has an 's.
"The geese's nests were attacked by a fox."

Does this help?
posted by luneray at 10:39 PM on June 24, 2005

Here's how I remember some of them

his, hers, its - all the same thing, all have no apostrophe. I bet you can remember that his has no apostrophe. You might have luck rememebring the newsgroup alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe that did it for me for a while.

Plurals don't have apostrophes unless they are also possessive. Shorten to plurals don't have apostrophes. I use the example:

     Unless the guy is called Taco, don't call the place Taco's.

Many people get possessive plurals wrong. It helps to have a set of sentences that you can remember, or examples.

The kid's dog [one kid, one dog]
The kid's dogs [one kid, two dogs]
the kids' dog [two kids, one dog]
the kids' dogs [two kids, two dogs]
the kids' dog's dish [two kids, one dog]
the kid's dogs' dish [one kid, two dogs]

Basically if you already added an S to make it plural, you don't add another one, you just add an apostrophe.

Words that already end in S or SH or CH or some other sounds get an -es ending. Bushes, Busses [tricky, there is also Buses], Wishes, Riches.

There is some more over at Wikipedia with some other mnemonics for rememebring some of this.
posted by jessamyn at 10:40 PM on June 24, 2005

NEVER use an apostrophe for a plural. Cat/cats. Bus/buses. Family/families. (The one tiny, hardly-necessary-to-worry-about exception that springs to mind: use an apostrophe to indicate the plural of letters -- i.e., "mind your p's and q's.") Basically, if you're using the "s" to indicate more than one object, do NOT use an apostrophe.

ALWAYS use an apostrophe to stand in for missing letters in conjunctions, as you say above. It is --> it's. Do not --> don't. You're --> you are (NOT the same as "your," which is a possessive -- i.e., "your question"). Likewise, they're --> they are, as distinct from there/their.

Possessives ALWAYS take an apostrophe (Cedar's question/scody's answer/Chris's book/children's books), EXCEPT with personal pronoun possessives: his/hers/its. The confusion, I think, stems from what seems to be the mistake of not using the apostrophe for "its" in this case. Just remember: "it's" ONLY ever means "it is."

In other words: "the book's cover is red" BUT "its cover is red." But of course, "it's [it is] a great book."

There are some other issues regarding more complex uses of plurals and possessives in relation to one another (especially as relates to names), but these are the basic rules.
posted by scody at 10:42 PM on June 24, 2005

(and yes, luneray is correct about plural possessives: "my brother's car" = the car that belongs to my [one] brother. "my brothers' car" = the car that belongs to my [multiple] brothers.)
posted by scody at 10:44 PM on June 24, 2005

I had an argument with a friend about this just today. We've got a mutual friend named Toby Levers, who's holding a party in his family's barn. Is this barn the Leverses' (Leverzeziz) barn? Or what?
posted by Kevin1911 at 10:52 PM on June 24, 2005

It is the Levers family's barn. ;)
posted by kindall at 10:56 PM on June 24, 2005

in reference to never using apostrophes for plurals, i've heard it alleged that you do infact use them for certain lowercase configurations, such as in many cd's, or that there are two a's in aaron.
the one that usually trips me up is the apostrophe used in referring to decades. i believe it's required if possessive (60's music), but not required when simply referring to them as a collective bunch of years (if you remember the 60s then you weren't really there).
kevin: i'd go for levers's barn. or leverses' barn, if referring to more than one member of the family.
posted by hayeled at 11:00 PM on June 24, 2005

I love it, kindall! In seriousness, though, Kevin1911, it's the Leverses' barn.

But here's another tricky exception. If the barn belonged to Toby, you could say it's "Toby Levers'" barn. Note there's no "s" after the apostrophe, even though it's a singular subject. When names end in "S", this is often the case. There's more information on this excellent apostrophe usage page.

I add that just for the sake of completeness, cedar, in case you see that usage in print somewhere and might get confused. Saying "Toby Levers's barn" is also perfectly acceptable, so the guidelines luneray and jessamyn gave you still hold. Print them on an index card and keep it next to the computer to consult when you're in an apostrophic fix.

As for decades, both 1960's and 1960s are acceptable, but if you're leaving out the century, it's preferable to only put the apostrophe before the decade, like this: '60s. There is no variation in this no matter what the context. In the phrase "I love '60s music," the word "'60s" is being used as an adjective, not a possessive.

P.S. Cedar: if you've got the its/it's bit down, you're way ahead of many intelligent, literate people.
posted by TPIRman at 11:14 PM on June 24, 2005

I would say not only not required, it's wrong to use the possesive for "the 1950s" or "CDs and DVDs"; unless a possesive is inteded (e.g., the CD's surface was scratched")

The NYTimes is the one major publication that has a different set of rules. They do not use apostrophes for acronyms and initializations, but consistently write "The 1950's was a great deacade". They are completey wrong and it drives me crazy.

Also, anyone who gets it's versus its should have no problem with who's and whose... same rules apply.

On preview: TPIRman, you are incorrect about decades.
posted by about_time at 11:18 PM on June 24, 2005

Bob the Angry Flower

Not as helpful, but a cute thing to post on your cubicle wall if you need reminding.
posted by apple scruff at 11:29 PM on June 24, 2005

My thanks to everyone who has taken the time to respond. I threw scody the best answer because I understood what she was saying and was able to apply it immediately.

The title of this post isn't off by more than a couple of years and this stuff (along with my son's algebra) kills me. The older I get, the more the gaps in my education show up and the harder it is to cover them up.

Don't be a fool, stay in school.
posted by cedar at 11:33 PM on June 24, 2005

Hey, if you're not sure which to use, I would say it looks LESS stupid to leave the apostrophe out than to use a superfluous one.

What do you think?

Less stupid: "Hes a big idiot"
More stupid: "I want some hot dog's"
posted by agropyron at 12:17 AM on June 25, 2005

about_time, the use of "1950's" or "the 50's" in the NY Times drives me nuts every time I see it, too! It's "1950s," or "the '50s," period.
posted by scody at 12:22 AM on June 25, 2005

Hi all -- my link was broken -- fixed it below. About_time, I am not incorrect about decades. I think 1950s is definitely preferable and more punctuationally sound, but 1950's is acceptable, if ugly. (When I'm editing somebody else's piece, I always remove the apostrophe, but that doesn't mean the apostrophe-laden version is wrong if it's seen in print.) So sez the Chicago Manual of Style. More info at this fixed link.

As for the NY Times, they have their own style guide which results in a lot of fucked-up stuff like "CD's," etc. Drives me crazy, too. Ah, well.
posted by TPIRman at 12:34 AM on June 25, 2005

TPIRman is right about decades. But personally I always use 1950s—the alternative is way ugly.

cedar: I wonder if you could help me with something. I've been trying to understand for some time why some people use apostrophes to pluralize certain words but not others. Were there any rules you applied before you got religion here?
posted by grouse at 12:45 AM on June 25, 2005

Follow-up/clarification on NY Times: They do indeed use apostrophes for acronyms and initializations, such as "URL's" in this article, "CD's" in this one, and "MP3's" in this one. Infuriating, especially as an editor when a student writer says, "But I saw them do it that way in the New York Times!" Grrr.

On preview: Great question, grouse. I'm interested to know, as well.
posted by TPIRman at 12:56 AM on June 25, 2005

Tricky cases may be rewritten:
For Jesus's sake. (correct, but awkward)
For the sake of Jesus.

If you put your cursor over About Our Projects on this recent MeFi link, you'll see a misuse of its. It's ubiquitous.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:35 AM on June 25, 2005

a side query: why is the phrase "60s music" considered adjectival rather than possessive, when it can be written as music of the 60s? you can't rewrite pointy stick as stick of the pointy.
posted by hayeled at 1:59 AM on June 25, 2005

Everyone recommends it, but Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a well-written, if occasionally slightly insane, guide to punctuation. It probably has a British English bias to it, which might be confusing if you're surrounded by American English all day, but the author usually notes where the two countries depart. It's only six dollars used, though, so even if you hate it you've only spent six dollars...
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:44 AM on June 25, 2005

Oh, no! In the eyes of God they'll be Flanderseseses!

I quite agree with the "never apostrophize plurals". Where I'm really called on to stick to my guns is when I have a bunch of variables, like "Add one to the as but not to the bs." The same people who want apostrophes there also like "n'th"; don't let them pollute.

(And don't "get me started" on gratuitously "double-quoted" "words"! For another thread.)
posted by Aknaton at 4:47 AM on June 25, 2005


posted by rxrfrx at 6:08 AM on June 25, 2005

TPIRman: No, the Chicago Manual (15th edition, 2003, section 7.15) says "Capital letters used as words, abbreviations that contain no interior periods, and numerals used as nouns form the plural by adding s," and in the list of examples include "the 1990s." In the next section they say "To avoid confusion, lowercase letters and abbreviations with two or more interior periods or with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s," giving the examples x's and y's; M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s (or MAs and PhD's).

As for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, it's useless, especially of course for Americans (since it's based on UK usage as misunderstood by Truss) but it's inconsistent and ignorant in general. Not Truss's fault—she's a humorist, not a grammarian, and can't be blamed for accepting the publisher's offer to write a book she wasn't qualified to write, since a paycheck is a paycheck—but I beg people not to add themselves to the list of those already misinformed by this undeserving bestseller.

why is the phrase "60s music" considered adjectival rather than possessive

Because it's parallel to, say, "World War Two music" or "jazz music" rather than "Fred's music." English has a lot of ways of joining words without formal marking, which is convenient for speakers but can be confusing if you're trying to analyze it. Some things can only be understood by going into the history of the language; for instance, the perennial question "why is foot singular in 'a six-foot wall'?" can only be answered once you know that in Old English words in that construction were in the genitive plural, which happened to wind up looking like a singular after the changes that turned Old English into Middle and Modern English.

I quite agree with the "never apostrophize plurals"... The same people who want apostrophes there also like "n'th"; don't let them pollute.

No offense, Aknaton, but unless you put out a widely accepted style guide, your opinion is of value only to you, and where (as here) it conflicts with the recommendations of widely accepted style guides, it's not helping answer the question. If somebody writes "Add one to the as" and gets called on it, what are they going to say, "Aknaton told me it was OK"? You can disagree with the style guides, but it's just silly to say people who follow them are somehow "polluting."

cedar: I hope you've picked up the basics from this thread and feel a bit more confident, but don't sweat it: you're going to screw it up from time to time (we all do, because it's such a complicated and unintuitive system), and that's OK. It's even educational, because you'll learn who the assholes are: they'll be the ones making fun of you for it. The important thing about using English is doing it effectively, communicating your meaning with as much wit or concision (whichever is called for) as you can; following what are essentially arbitrary rules about apostrophes is way, way down the list of things you should be concerned about. (There are those who advocate eliminating apostrophes altogether—after all, we understand each other's speech perfectly well, and you can't hear the things—but that ain't gonna happen, whatever the merits of the idea.)
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on June 25, 2005

Oh, Jeebus, languagehat, you forgot the other key Chicago point that TPIRman missed!

A singular name ending in a pronounced "s" that doesn't sound like "eez" (eg, Levers) does get another "s": Levers's. (MLA style is different, but the MLA is Satan's tool.)
posted by dame at 8:16 AM on June 25, 2005

For Jesus's sake. (correct, but awkward)

Strunk and White would disagree. The Elements of Style opens with the rule "Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's." but soon after mentions:

"Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake. But such forms as Achilles' heel, Moses' laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced [here Strunk and White go into what you suggested, weapons-grade pandemonium: replacing awkward constructions with another form, like the heel of Achilles]."

However, since Strunk and White's exception is for classical names, I suppose you might pray for Jesus' strength before going over to your friend Jesus's house.
posted by jbrjake at 8:35 AM on June 25, 2005

Dame -- I didn't "miss" anything. I only noted that cedar might see something like "Toby Levers' barn" in print and shouldn't be confused because this is often considered acceptable and is also a common practice. Not everybody out there uses Chicago style religiously -- I was trying to give practical, "don't panic" advice for keeping things straight instead of just offering prescriptive rules.

Languagehat -- I double-checked, and you are correct about Chicago's recommendations on decades. I apologize for my error. As a fellow grammar/punctuation nut, I consider this a serious transgression, so please forgive me.
posted by TPIRman at 8:40 AM on June 25, 2005

As far as for Jesus's sake goes... I don't have my Chicago manual in front of me, but I'm pretty sure they advocate the same exception for Biblical/classical names as jbrjake mentions from Strunk & White.

back on point: Cedar, TPIRman is right -- don't let all this chatter about the finer points of Chicago/MLA/Strunk & White rules and exceptions worry you. And languagehat is correct, as well -- no one gets it right all the time, not even usage nuts like us! English punctuation/spelling/grammar is just downright weird sometimes. :)
posted by scody at 9:33 AM on June 25, 2005

...but not guaranteed apostrophe.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:35 AM on June 25, 2005

In the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves the rule for possessive apostrophes on names ending in s is as follows.

For historical figures like Jesus, Aristophanes, Thucydides, etc:
In Jesus' name, amen
Aristophanes' plays
Thucydides' history

Modern figures who are alive or died recently like Ray Charles, Alec Guinness, Otis Redding:

Ray Charles's mistress
Alec Guinness's latest film
Otis Reddings's “Sitting by the dock of the bay”
posted by evariste at 11:03 AM on June 25, 2005

Ahh...but it's Otis Redding hence: Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay". /pedant
But I won't venture into the discussion about what it ought to be if it was Reddings. Sometimes we try to reproduce what we say in writing and I think that's where confusion or at least differences often arise.
But I too like scody's explanation and will cite her on all future occasions.
posted by peacay at 11:22 AM on June 25, 2005

In the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves the rule

...is often wrong, especially for American English but often for British English as well. Read the links from languagehat; he has wisdom. The New Yorker review he links to definitely takes off and nukes the site from orbit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:31 AM on June 25, 2005

Sometimes we try to reproduce what we say in writing and I think that's where confusion or at least differences often arise.

Differences, yes; confusion, only if you're easily confused (in which case the color/colour thing should send you right over the edge). As a matter of fact, I always recommend the "write it like you say it" approach to people who are leery of long lists of rules; if you say /redi?z?z/ write Reddings's, if you say /redi?z/ write Reddings'. Simple and effective.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2005

No one's mentioned the the Apostrophe Protection Society? (Make sure to check out their Example pages while you're there.)

Great answer languagehat. Oh, and Peacay, since you were pedantic, here's my own beef: improper use of the subjunctive.

But I won't venture into the discussion about what it ought to be if it was Reddings. The sentence you wrote is subjunctive. It's a state of being contrary to fact, so you use were, not was. Ex: I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener. (you're not.)
posted by Happydaz at 12:09 PM on June 25, 2005

Um..thanks Happydaz, I guess - any other thread and I'd fashion a stinging retort. My grammar is usually pretty good. I forget the terms but can often get it right saying it aloud. However, I had to look OMW up, never having heard of it/them previously.
And languagehat, colour/color is easy but I do find I get confused from time to time in spelling with 's' or 'z' (probably among others) from American (read: MeFi) infiltration. Actually, I sometimes purposefully use American spelling when I don't want the minutiae to get in the way of communication. I believe I/we should be given leeway, having had an education based on the British tradition and being continuously exposed to the American system. "There are no mistakes, only portals to discovery". JJ
posted by peacay at 12:39 PM on June 25, 2005

Follow-up/clarification on NY Times: They do indeed use apostrophes for acronyms and initializations, such as "URL's" in this article, "CD's" in this one, and "MP3's" in this one.

Ha! I knew someone else does this! I was taught at one point to use apostrophes when pluralizing acronyms -- and then one day, suddenly NO ONE knew what the hell I was talking about and many people seemed to think I was some sort of neandarthal because I would write "CD's"
posted by dagnyscott at 12:54 PM on June 25, 2005

I had to do a presentation on reference and possession for my grammar class, and I found something that I will never forget:

[from The Grammar Book, p. 302]
In writing, the first [way to indicate possession] is by inflecting regular and singular nouns and irregular plural nouns not ending in s with 's: the baby's crib or the women's room

...or by adding an apostrophe after the s ending of regular plural nouns and singular forms that already end in the sound s: the boys' trip or Kansas' farmlands

The apostrophe added to regular plural nouns ending in s does nothing to alter the pronunciation of the word.
This confused me when I read it, since I had always thought of it in terms in singular vs. plural. There is a footnote to that rule that says "Some writers now use 's after all singular nouns ending in s."

I probably just added another layer of confusion, but I just found it interesting and this book is sitting on my shelf so I figured I'd put it to use.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 1:12 PM on June 25, 2005

I don't think cedar's looking for an in-depth style guide or an argument about whose newspaper places the best apostrophes. It seems as if he/she is looking for a simple list of rules to follow (as in Scody's excellent post) so that he/she can write with greater confidence. If he/she wants to check up on other punctuation marks, a book along the lines of Eats, Shoots & Leaves but with an American focus seems perfect.

There's a lot of contradictory information (and a little rudeness) in this thread -- is there a single, simple source to which someone to whom the rules do not come naturally can refer?
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:19 PM on June 25, 2005

Sorry Peacay if I came across as rude, just continuing the fun :-) Armyofkittens: The problem is there's too many styles, from AP to MLA to Chicago. And... uhm... Eats Shoots and Leaves. If there's a single source, it sure would be nice to know about it.
posted by Happydaz at 2:24 PM on June 25, 2005

I've been told by someone I trust that The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon is a good guide to these things; it certainly sounds like fun:
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is populated by a wickedly decadent cast of gargoyles, mastodons, murderous debutantes, and, yes, vampires (both transitive and otherwise), who cavort and consort in order to illustrate basic principles of grammar. The sentences are intoxicating—"How he loved to dangle his participles, brush his forelock off his forehead with his foreleg, and gaze into the aqueous depths"—but the rules and their explanations are as sound as any you might find in Strunk and White. Outlining the building blocks of the English language, from parts of speech to phrases and clauses, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire goes on to exorcise such grammatical demons as passive voice, fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences. At last, a handbook of grammar you will actually want to read.
posted by languagehat at 2:44 PM on June 25, 2005

HappyDayz: no worries. It's a little difficult distinguishing bite from banter on screen - I was trying to walk the 'ignorant' line in between.
languagehat - I want that book!
posted by peacay at 6:09 PM on June 25, 2005

Happydaz: so pick a style at random and go with it! If you're writing to make yourself understood -- and particularly to disambiguate, so we know how many printers you're talking about -- then you don't need to get caught up in the complex stuff. As far as I can tell, most styles agree on the basics, and if they're just that -- styles -- then it doesn't seem to matter which publisher you listen to.

There can never be a single source for the whole language. But there's no reason why there can't be one for one person who wants to write with some confidence. That Transitive Vampire thingy looks like the sort of thing. The point is that someone who wants to learn the basics should have an opportunity to do so before being thrown into the confusing contradictions of the many style guides. Hell, I'd never even heard of style guides until I started reading Metafilter, but then I don't think they're very widely used in England.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:49 AM on June 26, 2005

« Older convex fingernail clippers?   |   renting rooms in your own house Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.