10 Types of Apostrophe Errors You Should Avoid

By Mark Nichol

Even considering how many ways the apostrophe can be employed, erroneous use of punctuation mark is endemic. Here are brief discussions of ten categories of apostrophe abuse (including one writers and editors must let stand, even though it may pain them to do so).

1. With Plurals
Writing the plural form of a noun in which an apostrophe precedes the plural s, such as when taxi’s is written instead if taxis, is a common error. (This mistake is known as a greengrocer’s apostrophe due to its ubiquity in hand-written—and even printed—store signs.)

2. With Pronouns
Pronouns are followed by an apostrophe and s only as contractions (for example, he’s). Possessive pronouns (such as theirs and yours) never include an apostrophe.

3. With Shared Possession
When two or more people or other entities are described as separately owning something, each name should be in possessive form: “John’s and Jane’s houses are the same color.” But when they share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only: “John and Jane’s house is just down the block.”

4. With the Possessive Form of a Surname
That shingle on your neighbor’s porch should not read, “The Brown’s house,” unless your neighbor’s legal name is “the Brown.” A sign identifying the residence of the Browns should read “The Browns’ house” (or simply “The Browns”).

5. With the Plural Form of an Abbreviation
No apostrophe is required with plurals of abbreviations. Write, for example, “They disarmed or detonated several IEDs” (not IED’s).

6. With the Plural Form of a Numeral
In the rare case of indicating more than one instance of a numeral, do not use an apostrophe: “Write three 7s on a piece of paper” (not 7’s).

7. With a Span of Years
Some publications persist in using an apostrophe in a reference to a span of years, but that form is outdated: Write, for example, “The style, which flourished briefly in the 1960s, made a comeback several decades later” (not 1960’s) and “He continued to work well into his 70s” (not 70’s).

Generally, an apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive (“It was 1985’s longest-reigning Top 40 hit”), though this style is awkward. (An exception is use of a number to stand in for a person, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number, as in “It was number 13’s lucky day.”)

8. With the Plural Form of a Word Used as a Word
Don’t apostrophize the conjunctions in “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or the counterpoints in “A helpful list of dos and don’ts follows.” (Do, however, retain the intrinsic apostrophe in the plural form of don’t.)

9. With the Plural Form of a Letter Used as a Letter
Even when a letter is italicized, it still looks awkward to simply place an s next to it to indicate plurality, so do insert an apostrophe: “How many m’s do you spell hmm with?” (Follow this rule even when, in the case of an expression such as “Mind your p’s and q’s,” italicization isn’t necessary.) However, omit an apostrophe when pluralizing capital letters: “She received only As and Bs on her last report card.”

10. With Brand Names
Many brand names, such as Starbucks Coffee, that technically should include apostrophes don’t, for one of two reasons (or both): A company decides that the brand name and/or logo look better without an apostrophe, or it reasons that it’s better to omit the punctuation mark so that people typing the URL for the company’s website into a Web browser or searching for it (or for other references to the company) online won’t have difficulty doing so. Yes, “Starbucks Coffee” is a “mistake,” but one the company has the right to make (and writers and editors have an obligation to honor).

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11 Responses to “10 Types of Apostrophe Errors You Should Avoid”

  • Rob Bonney

    I read something a (can’t recall the source unfortunately) but I believe it said that a last name ending in s should follow with ‘s to indicate possession. I think the example was Serena Williams’s serve. In your # 4. of apostrophe tips on 2/17/16 “With the Possessive Form of a Surname
    That shingle on your neighbor’s porch should not read, “The Brown’s house,” unless your neighbor’s legal name is “the Brown.” A sign identifying the residence of the Browns should read “The Browns’ house” (or simply “The Browns”).” If their name is Brown and there are two or more of them, wouldn’t it be the Browns’s house? Of course, the Browns sounds better and is more common (though you see a lot of “the Brown’s” signs on campsites.

  • Rob Bonney

    Okay I just realized that Williams is singular and Browns is plural so never mind my post just prior! I guess it would be the Williamses’ house for the Williams family?

  • Roberta B.

    I’m finally glad I got to #9. I often use the form “cc’s,” as in, “I sent five cc’s of my previous letter,” with “cc” short for the anachronistic “carbon copy.” I’m happy to see that’s OK. Also, I believe it’s OK to use the expression “Homeowners Association,” not as a possessive, but “Homeowners” as an adjective. It really isn’t a possessive and solves the problem of that pesky apostrophe.

  • Gary Heilbronn

    As to Rob Bonney’s comments, I do think there is scope for using ..”s’s” when someone’s name ends in “s”. The example of Serena Williams’ tennis racquet sounds fine without the extra “s” but what about “Spartacus’s shield”. It doesn’t sound right to say (or write) “Spartacus’ shield” as that makes it appear that the name is “Spartacu”. So I would use “Spartacus’s” in such a situation. If there is a rule of grammar saying I am wrong or another rule distinguishing between possessive use of names ending in an “s” preceded by a consonant or a vowel, then i’d like to hear of it.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Ah, but don’t forget the apostrophe problem that plagues me the most. “It’s” should only be used to mean “It is.” For possession, use “its.”

    That’s frustrating because it runs against most of the examples you give. The answer is perhaps to realize that “its” is intrinsically possessive in the same sense that “his” is possessive. The word itself doesn’t need an apostrophe.

  • Agua Caliente

    John and Jane are, in fact, our neighbors. Small world. One of the owners of the house on the other side of ours is a doctor, which leads to my wondering about “doctor’s appointment,” as I hear it said so often (and sometimes written). Darn it, it’s MY appointment, not the doctor’s!

  • Agua Caliente

    “Write three 7s on a piece of paper” (not 7’s).”
    I would consider writing “three 7s” on that paper. “Write the number ‘7’ three times on a piece of paper” would also work (although the point is well-made and inarguable).

  • venqax

    @Michael W. Perry: Not forgotten. That is covered by #2. “It” is a pronoun “its” a possessive pronoun in that case, so its just like his, theirs, yours, etc.

  • Miles

    To Michael Perry, above: ‘it’s’ also means ‘it has’, as in ‘It’s been a long day’.

  • Anne-Marie

    I like my distinguishing apostrophe to pluralize letters, numbers, and abbreviations. Writing As, 7s, and IEDs looks awkward and oftentimes confuses the reader. I know I am not alone in asking myself, “What the heck is a 7 s? Is that the new BMW?” Perhaps the rule for apostrophes needs changing.

    Also, those people at Starbucks Coffee must be prophets. They looked into the 20 years into the future and saw the internet and URL’s (see, there, I did it and I liked it!) when they developed their name. No wonder their coffee is so expensive.

  • Anne-Marie

    I like my distinguishing apostrophe to pluralize letters, numbers, and abbreviations. Writing As, 7s, and IEDs looks awkward and oftentimes confuses the reader. I know I am not alone in asking myself, “What the heck is a 7 s? Is that the new BMW?” Perhaps the rule for apostrophes needs changing.

    Also, those people at Starbucks Coffee must be prophets. They looked 20 years into the future and saw the internet and URL’s (see, there, I did it and I liked it!) when they developed their name. No wonder their coffee is so expensive.

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