The Apostrophe #amwriting

Today we’re looking at the sometimes confusing apostrophe. It has many uses, but I will only delve into the most common ways we use it in creative writing today.

In creative writing, the apostrophe is a small morsel of punctuation that, on the surface, seems simple. However, certain common applications can be confusing, so as we get to those I will try to be as concise and clear as possible.

First up, we all know that we use the apostrophe to denote possession:

  • This is George’s cat. (George owns this cat.)
  • This is Jorgensen’s cat. (A person who is going by the surname of Jorgensen owns the cat.)

Where this gets a little tricky is in the possessive form of a surname when it refers to the whole family. In this case, you insert a grammatical article (the) and make the name plural, and then add the apostrophe:

  • This is the Jorgensens’ cat. (The Jorgensen family owns the cat.)

If the Jorgensen family have a sign made for their front porch, they would have it made to read “The Jorgensens’ Home” (not “The Jorgensen’s Home,” as that would imply that only one Jorgensen lives there, and his legal name is “The Jorgensen.”)

When two or more people (or other entities such as businesses) are described as separately owning something, each name should be in the possessive form:

  • “Ralph’s and Janet’s cars are the same model.”

However, if Ralph and Janet share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only:

  • “Ralph and Janet’s car is a Prius.”

In some cases, we need to use plurals of abbreviations. In a military thriller, you might need to say, “They disarmed several IEDs.” (We would not use an apostrophe: IED’s.)

Writing a year numerically has been an area of confusion for me. This is because I rarely have had to write years in this way until recently and the use of an apostrophe for this is now considered outdated. However, this is how they should be written:

  • The tavern culture of the 1600s was flourishing. (1600’s would not be considered incorrect, just old fashioned.)
  • Dresses in the 1960s were shorter than in previous years.

An apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive.

  • It was 1985’s worst storm. (Some editors feel this is awkward, but I let it stand when I see it in a manuscript.)

Numbers are frequently written numerically when writing books for middle grade and YA readers, as these stories often center around schools and sports.

A single digit, such as 7, is made plural with the addition of an s: 7s

Insert an apostrophe to denote possession when you must use a number to stand in for a person in an article, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number:

  • Number 8’s tackle won the day.

Contractions can be confusing. Two words made into one word are joined by an apostrophe:

  • Do not = don’t
  • We are = we’re
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re

And so on. A list of contractions to watch for can be found at the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: Wikipedia: List of English contractions

Conjunctions also can be tricky.  Simply add an s, such as in the phrase “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or “A list of dos and don’ts follows.” We do keep the contractive apostrophe in don’t and simply add an s to make it plural.

Sometimes a single letter looks awkward when we just use an s to indicate plurality.

“How many h’s do you spell shh with?” (hs would look very odd.)

When pluralizing capital letters, we don’t use an apostrophe: Mike earned three Ds in English this year but still passed the class.

In a narrative, the two most common missions apostrophes have are to denote possession or indicate a contraction.

  • Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  • Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  • Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  • Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form.

  • The texture of the wall —it’s rough. ( contraction: it is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (possession: the wall’s surface.)

In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession but can also indicate a contraction. The difficulty arises in the fact that both it and they are frequently part of contracted words.

In the effort to standardize English usage, early linguists made a choice to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form. They did this in the (futile) hope of ending confusion.

  • It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  • Its denotes possession: It owns it.
  • Their: they own it
  • They’re: they are

As with so many things that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” its and it’s will always cause problems for new and beginning writers. Inadvertent misuse happens even for old hands like me when I’m zipping along laying down the first draft of a manuscript, especially during NaNoWriMo.

We have to be vigilant and ensure we have looked for proper usage of its and it’s during revisions. Even the big traditional publishing houses admit sneaky errors like those like to go unnoticed until after publication.

In closing, the most common uses of the apostrophe aren’t too difficult once we learn the rules. Remember, apostrophes are integral parts of the traffic control system, signals that keep your words moving along at the right rate. Using them the way they are intended (and which readers expect) keeps the reader from throwing your book away.

I always suggest you set some time aside for writing new words every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. When we force ourselves to think about and use the basic rules of grammar regularly, we retain what we have learned.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “The Apostrophe #amwriting

  1. Let me make sure I have this right. Here are two examples and let me know if they are correct.
    I never sent the McVees a card.
    I went out to the McVees’ ranch.
    Thank you.

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    • Correct! You have the right usage. Sometimes in a narrative, because of the way we speak, some writers will say “Jess’s face turned dark with anger.” This is becoming the accepted way of writing a possessive for a single name ending in s, but for family groups, the Chicago Manual still suggests we go with McVees’ because it just looks better.

      I always let Jess’s slide, because we want to sound natural, and it’s not a needle in my editorial eye.

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  2. How do you feel about a plural when the name ends in “s”? The Joneses are coming over.

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    • Hello! Some writers will say “Jess’s face turned dark with anger.” This is becoming the accepted way of writing a possessive for a single name ending in s, but for family groups, the Chicago Manual still suggests we go with McVees’ because it just looks better.

      I always let Jess’s slide, because we want to sound natural, and it’s not a needle in my editorial eye.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What if it’s plural and not possessive? We could say the Jones family, but what is the plural? Is it Joneses?

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      • Oh, I see what you are saying! Where I come from, we do say Joneses as the plural-possessive of Jones. If the Jones family owns it, and we are being correct, Jones’? I believe we say Joneses –Pain in the English has a good page on this at this link: Plural Ending Possessives Quite honestly, this has never come up in my research, so now I am on a hunt! Thank you!

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      • Maddening. Thanks though. My understanding is that Mr. & Mrs. Jones are the Joneses. If they own a car it is the Jones’ car. Does this mean in the plural possessive that the apostrophe actually serves as a contraction for Joneses’? Again, maddening.

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      • I will do some serious research and bring what I discover to the table on Monday! I have never had a character named Jones, so I’ve never looked it up. I think its just dialect–it’s easier to say The house belongs to the Jonses but it looks wierd when we write it. The house belongs to the Jones family is how I will say it until I locate a definitive answer! Bob Jones’car repair shop vs Bob Joneses car repair shop – I’d go with Jones’. Welcome to the Jones’s House would look better so… … .

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      • It’s crazy. Any name ending with “s.” Easy just to avoid that when writing fiction, but not so easy in professional papers and such. Fidis, Ellis, Holmes, etc.

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    • I don’t agree with the rule of some experts of simply adding an apostrophe to a name ending in s to denote possession. Unless, that is, it is normally said without repetition of the s. So, “that is the Jones’s car” but “in Jesus’ name” is a far clearer way of setting it out.

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      • Excellent. I will go with that–this definitely has raised some questions I hadn’t considered!

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      • But Jones is plural, Jesus is singular. You said “the” Jones’s car. Not simply Jones’ car.

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      • Actually, “Jones” is a surname of Welsh origin that goes back to the middle ages, meaning “John’s son.” It can be singular or plural, depending on how many members of the Jones family are standing here. You insert the article ‘the’ when you are referring to any family group.

        “The” Jones’ car.
        “The” Johnsons’ car.
        “The” Andersons’ house.

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      • I hold that all of those are correct. But what happens if you drop the possessive aspect and just want the plural. Easy enough when the Johnsons are coming over for dinner, because their name does not end in “s.” But if the Joneses are coming over, I think that’s different. I’ve wanted a definitive answer for years. Maybe I’ll ask my editor friend.

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      • You are quite right. The ‘the’ should have been left off my example. It would have been better as something like John Jones’s car.

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  3. The its/it’s one causes more confusion than anything else, in my experience.
    That, and the urge to use the apostrophe with s to form a plural. I don’t know of any exceptions to the rule that this is always incorrect.

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    • I haven’t found any. I think the it’s/its quandary is a problem for most new writers because when we first begin to write seriously, many years have passed since our education in grammar and we haven’t used it. Even when I started back to college as a young adult I had problems with self-doubt when it came to grammar, and my efforts were ragged and not pretty. We become inconsistent when we start doubting ourselves–at least I do. Also, I get confused easily unless I am looking at the CMoS because I have only become a grammar junkie in the last nine years and have poor short-term memory. I am unlearning a lifetime of bad writing habits.

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  4. Pingback: The Apostrophe ~ Connie Jasperson #amwriting | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  5. I am guilty of sometimes totally rewriting a sentence to avoid an uncertainty with apostrophes.

    One of my biggest eye openers when I first showed my work to someone for critique was that my use of punctuation in and around speech was completely wrong. I couldn’t believe that, considering how much fiction I read, I hadn’t absorbed how to write it correctly!

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    • These are all things we learn by doing and undoing. My first real editor was a lady from Texas, and she taught me how to write. When we first began working together, she sent my first two chapters back to me at no cost, but with all the corrections noted, and instructions as to how to proceed. She advised me to purchase a Chicago Manual of Style and use it. She then said that she liked my novel, and when I had made those corrections in the entire manuscript she would be happy to get down to the REAL editing. She taught me how to make a submission-ready manuscript.

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