Tag Archives: apostrophes

Do’s and Don’ts for Apostrophes

Did today’s heading look odd to you? I put an apostrophe into do’s, which isn’t possessive. My reason is that apostrophes (contrary to what your teachers might have told you) are sometimes used for plurals: Mind your p’s and q’s. Your 4’s sometimes look like 9’s. I moved to Florida in the 1970’s. And you probably heard your mother say “If if’s and but’s were candy and nuts….” (Mine did!)

Suppose you wrote a note to a co-worker saying, “I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your is.” You meant that your co-worker forgets the dot on the “i.” But it looks like you wrote the word is.

So you’d use an apostrophe, like this:

I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your i’s.  CORRECT

Here are a few more examples:

I’m revising my essay because I used too many and’s. CORRECT

My computer keyboard sticks when I try to type 2’s and 9’s. CORRECT

Gail earned straight A’s in college. CORRECT

Is everybody clear that I’m NOT giving you permission to write Smith’s when you mean the whole Smith family? They’re the Smiths.

The Smiths sent us a postcard from Hawaii. CORRECT

Let’s go back to do’s and don’ts. There have been heated arguments about the apostrophe in do’s. If you’re trying to be consistent, you’ll also insert it into don’ts, and then you have this odd construction: do’s and don’t’s. But if you omit the apostrophe, the result is just as odd: dos and don’ts. How do you settle this?

The answer is that you do whatever works for you (or, if you’re writing professionally, whatever your organization’s style guide tells you to do). Rules are guidelines. They’re supposed to facilitate writing and reading, not get in the way. I like do’s and don’ts, and that’s what I use.

(I just did some research and learned that the Macmillan Dictionary uses the apostrophe in do’s, but the Oxford Manual of Style omits it.)

Earlier you might have noticed that I inserted an apostrophe into 1970’s (“I moved to Florida in the 1970’s”). That apostrophe is gradually disappearing – some style guides still use it, while others don’t.

I can hear someone out there moaning that the sky is falling, and there are no rules anymore, and….

Guess what: language rules have always been in flux. Do some research about punctuation rules from three or four centuries ago: you’ll probably have a coronary when you see how much they’ve changed! It’s like traffic laws. We need to know the rules that apply here and now. (In Florida you can make a right turn at a red light – but don’t try that in Manhattan!)

candy and nuts


Apostrophes, Please!

I have three reasons for loving The Washington Post:

  1.  In 1889 the newspaper commissioned John Philip Sousa to write the “Washington Post March.”
  2. Carolyn Hax writes the advice column.
  3. I can read articles online free, thanks to a complimentary subscription from my local newspaper.

But The Washington Post also drives me crazy. Would someone please, please teach them how to do apostrophes? And while you’re at it, would you teach teachers how to teach them?

Here’s how apostrophes are usually taught: “Before the s if it’s singular, after the s if it’s plural – and don’t forget about special plurals and proper names ending in s, which are before the s.” Which, of course, almost everyone promptly forgets.

Here’s how apostrophes are properly taught: “Spell the word or name. Find the last letter. Put the apostrophe after that last letter. Add an s if you need it.”

Let’s look at two recent examples from The Washington Post.

Yesterday’s edition discusses the belief that the government should be in charge of virtually everything in peoples’ lives.

OK, here we go. What’s the last letter of people? E. Put the apostrophe after the E: people’s. (It’s different if you’re an anthropologist, but let’s not go there today.)  

Now let’s go back a week to an article about Melania Trump: The first lady will focus on womens’ difficulties, President Trump says.

Let’s spell women. It ends with N, right? So here’s how you do it: women’s.

Not difficult, folks!



Is There an Apostrophe in Presidents’ Day?

Monday, February 15, is Presidents’ Day, and many people will spend some time thinking about the accomplishments of our US Presidents.

Some people will also be thinking about that apostrophe: Presidents’ Day.  Why does the apostrophe go after the “s” – and is it really necessary?

Let’s deal with placing the apostrophe first. The US government uses the apostrophe, but not everyone does. I just saw a Volkswagen ad for a Presidents’ Day sale that didn’t use the apostrophe. This is another example of our ever-changing language: Sometimes apostrophes disappear, and possessive nouns become adjectives.

But officially it’s Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe goes after the “s” because we’re honoring Presidents. If we were honoring a single President, it would go after the “t”: President’s Day.

Apostrophes are easy to do (despite what you may remember from school!). Spell the word, and put the apostrophe after the last letter. This trick will work every time.

teacher = teacher’s

teachers = teachers’

people = people’s

puppy = puppy’s

puppies = puppies’

Dan = Dan’s

Louis = Louis’ (or Louis’s)

Let’s go on to the second question: Why is the apostrophe necessary? The answer is that there’s an “of” hidden here: It’s really the Day of the Presidents. Any time you have an “of” idea, use an apostrophe: cat of Joan = Joan’s cat. Pay of a week = a week’s pay.

This may be different from what you heard in school. Teachers often say that apostrophes show ownership, but that can be misleading. For example, take a look at this sentence:

Don’t sit there: That’s Mary’s seat.

Chances are Mary doesn’t own that chair! But it’s the chair of Mary because she usually sits there.

Click here to learn more about apostrophes. You can try a practice activity here, and I’ve posted a presentation about apostrophes here.

Enjoy this wonderful holiday!

Presidents' Day

 Presidents’ Day


A Good Night’s Sleep and an Apostrophe

A good night's sleep

A good night’s sleep

Should you use an apostrophe when you write about “a good night’s sleep”? Yes.

You’ve probably heard a teacher say that an apostrophe signifies ownership. That statement is correct, but it’s only part of the apostrophe story.

Apostrophes signify “of” ideas. Mary’s car means “car of Mary.” Dennis’ dog means “dog of Dennis.” Three weeks’ pay means “pay of three weeks.” And so on.

The apostrophe in “a good night’s sleep” means “sleep of a night.”

Time expressions often use apostrophes. A day’s pay means “pay of a day.” Two weeks’ vacation means “vacation of two weeks.” A moment’s delay means “delay of a moment.”

“Before the s or after the s?” If you take a minute to look at the example, you’ll have the answer: Spell the word (day, days, weekweeks, night, nightsmoment, momentsDennis, Mary) and put the apostrophe after the last letter.

Here are some examples:

a day’s delay

two days’ delay

a week’s pay

two weeks’ pay

a good night’s sleep

two nights’ dreams

a moment’s delay

several moments’ anxiety

For more practice with apostrophes, click here. You can watch a short PowerPoint about apostrophes here.

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Apostrophes with Family Names

The September 2 edition of the Huffington Post featured an article about Oprah Winfrey’s dislike for reality shows–an issue now that Carson Kressley, the host of an Oprah Winfrey Network show, will be a contestant on this season’s Dancing with the Stars.

A sentence in the story caught my editor’s eye: the network “has the O’Neil’s and The Judd’s which might not be as crazy as some of VH1 and Bravo shows, but nevertheless they are reality shows.”

Nope. It “has the O’Neils and The Judds….” without apostrophes. Apostrophes don’t mean “more than one.” They signify “of ” ideas.

And the title of the show is misspelled: It should have been spelled The O’Neals, and that which clause should have begun with a comma. So many mistakes in one sentence!

To learn more about apostrophes with family names, click here.


Apostrophes with Family Names

Apostrophes with family names often cause confusion. Luckily I can suggest a simple way to get these apostrophes right. Or a few simple ways.

They all work 100% of the time – take your pick. Just make sure you have an “of” idea: The house of the Parkers = the Parkers’ house. The terrier of the Parkers = the Parkers’ terrier.

Don’t use an apostrophe if there’s no “of” idea: The Parkers sent me a birthday card. No of!

  • My favorite way to place the apostrophe correctly is to simply spell the name. You wouldn’t say “the Parker,” would you? It’s “the Parkers.” The last letter is “s,” and the apostrophe always goes after the last letter. So it’s Parkers’ house (house of the Parkers).
  • Another way is to turn every apostrophe construction into an “of” idea. So let’s say you’ve written the Parkers new terrier, and you’re wondering where the heck the apostrophe goes. Make it an “of” idea: new terrier of the Parkers. Aha! Put the apostrophe after the last letter (the “s,” in this case): the Parkers’ new terrier.
  • There’s still another way, probably the most elegant of them all. Any family name with “the” in front is going to end in “s,” so that’s where the apostrophe will always go: the Browns’ terrier, the Smiths’ porch, the Johnsons’ SUV, the Rodriguezes’ party, the Chans’ flat-screen TV.
    It’s impossible to put “the” in front of a family name without putting an “s” at the end. Try it!
  • One more thing: Omit the apostrophe when there’s no “of” idea: The Browns bought a time share. The Smiths are on vacation. The Johnsons are having their house painted. The Rodriguezes have company. The Chans are moving.



(You can watch a PowerPoint about apostrophes by clicking here. )

Family Flickr Wikipedia ok


Have Fun with Apostrophes

Mondays ain’t so bad.

Every Monday our local newspaper prints a syndicated column, “Below the Beltway,” by Gene Weingarten. He is provocative and funny – a delight to read.

Today’s column lists once highly valued things that have depreciated so much that they’re almost worthless. Examples include Mel Gibson’s film career, BP stock, and…(#8 on the list) apostrophes.

More precisely, he says, “the skill of using apostrophe’s.” He goes on to note, “Nobody get’s it right anymore, and nobody gives a darn, and thats just the way it is.”

Okay, gang: He made three deliberate apostrophe errors. Can you find them? Answers below.

I salute you, Gene. There are two of us left who still care about apostrophes!

[ANSWERS: Delete the apostrophe from apostrophes and gets. Insert an apostrophe into that’s.]

This website offers many resources to help you learn apostrophes: A PowerPoint about placing apostrophes, a handout, and a practice exercise with answers and explanations.