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That Pesky Apostrophe – Lesson 3: A Refresher and A Review

We are wrapping up the Pesshutterstock_255981343ky Apostrophe series with Lesson 3 – a refresher on plural nouns and use of an apostrophe. Plural nouns don’t have a lot to do with pesky apostrophes, but they confuse even the nerdiest of grammarphiles, so they are the topic of Lesson 3.

A table summarizing all 3 lessons follows. The Associated Press Stylebook* was instrumental in helping make sense of these rules and providing examples. Is it any wonder the apostrophe was the first type of punctuation covered by the Stylebook in the section, A Guide to Punctuation?

A Noun Refresher

Noun – a person, place or thing; usually made plural by adding an “s” to the end with no apostrophe. Example: apple, apples, kayak, kayaks,

Exceptions to the above: nouns made plural by adding something other than, or in addition to, an “s.” Examples include: fish, fishes, child, children, mouse, mice.

Another group of exceptions are nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning. This group includes measles, mathematics, to name a few. To show possession, add an apostrophe after the “s.”

Scissors and scissors are another exception – in this case there is no change to the singular and plural form of the word. In fact, this noun is typically referred to as a pair of scissors even when there is only one. Maybe our brains just can’t wrap around the idea of a noun ending in “s” being a single.

Another funky category of nouns are those that have an “s-sound” at the end – the example “mice” being one of those. The plural-possessive is “mice’s,” as in “The mice’s escape route was between the kitchen walls.”

In Summary

SINGLE NOUN SHOWING POSSESSION: Mark’s fishing pole, Agnes’s kayak, Agnes’ kayak (either is OK)

PLURAL NOUN SHOWING POSSESSION: The People’s choice, Plumbers’ union, The classes’ assignment, The mice’s cheese

CONTRACTIONS: You’re (You are) – not “your” – that means you own it, it does not mean you are doing something. Another example:  It’s (it is) – not “its” – another form of ownership, “Its bark was worse than its bite.”

PLURAL NOUNS: Apple – Apples, Fish – Fishes, Child – Children, Scissors – Scissors

*The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, (2007)

A Final Thought

When all else fails and you are uncertain whether an apostrophe should be used, avoid the situation by rewording the phrase. Or consult the Associated Press Stylebook.

That Pesky Apostrophe – Lesson 2: Case of the Missing Letter

In Lesson 1 you learned a couple of simple scenarios about the possessive apostrophe (Mark’s fishing pole; Agnes’s or Agnes’ kayak if you need a memory jog).

shutterstock_240715297Lesson 2 examines another apostrophe personality, the lazy substitute. Too tired to just spell it out? Throw in an apostrophe and be done with it. English grammar calls these words contractions. The apostrophe is substituted for a letter that goes missing. Familiar examples are: don’t for do not (the “o” in “not” is replace), “I’ve” for “I have,” where the apostrophe has power of attorney for multiple letters in the contraction.

When and why would you use contractions?

The rules for using contractions are not hard and fast. Whether you are speaking or writing, the use of contractions instead of “whole words” convey a sense of informality to the communication. ( recommends considering the audience and tone you mean to convey in the communication when deciding whether to use contractions. To sound formal, professional and business-like, do not use contractions.

To sound casual, such as in personal blog posts, personal emails and other relaxed communications, don’t hesitate to use a contraction.

Contraction Pitfalls – No, Make that Minefield

Unless “grammar check” is turned on in your favorite app or software, not all auto-correct tools will catch errors of contraction versus possession. So keep these examples handy and when in doubt, play them back in your mind to recall if an apostrophe applies:

Possessive (Lesson 1): Its nose was cold on my hand as Ginger begged to be petted. No apostrophe.

Contraction (Lesson 2): It’s a fine day to take Ginger to the dog park for a walk. Short for “it is.”

Last But Not Least

Words or phrases I’ve heard all my life I never thought of as contractions:

Six o’ clock (six of the clock)

Jack o’ Lantern (Jack of the lantern)

Yes ma’am (madam)

‘twas (here’s one that starts with a missing letter, no less) for “it was”

For a comprehensive list of common and uncommon contractions, visit:

That Pesky Apostrophe – Lesson 1: Possession is 9/10’s of the Law

Next to the semicolon, the apostrophe is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks in the English language, says me. Confusion arises, in part, because it’s such a multi-tasking little guy.

shutterstock_152162204Lesson 1 gives you some simple rules to apply most of the time when the apostrophe is showing possession.

In the opening paragraph it’s working as a place-holder for a missing letter: “it is.” That’s Lesson 2.

Lesson 3 is about the rare – YES – RARE occasions the apostrophe helps out a plural noun.

Apostrophe is most frequently misused when it’s followed by the letter “s” and used to show a plural or possessive (i.e. ownership) condition. No wonder – just Google the rules for apostrophe and prepare to settle down for attention-grabbing reading on genitive inflections.

When you aren’t sure how to use that pesky apostrophe in a possessive situation, keep these 2 rules in mind:

  1. Singular possessive (you possess it): Mark’s fishing pole; Agnes’s kayak. Agnes’ kayak is equally acceptable use; spell it as you would say it. In these cases the apostrophe is before the possessive “s.”
  2. Plural possessive (a group possesses it): The people’s choice – people is plural and they have 1 choice. If they had many choices it would be, “The peoples’ choices.”

The plumbers’ union – a group of plumbers “possess”, (in the membership-sense of the word) a union.

But if the noun describing the group ends in “s”, the plural possessive looks like this:

The classes’ assignment.

If your situation doesn’t seem to be described by these 2 simple situations, it’s probably not. The many exceptions fill pages – I won’t bore you here. That’s a lesson for the future.

Remember these 2 rules of thumb: (1) be consistent and (2) if in doubt, spell it like you would say it. The grammar nerds will thank you.

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