November 14, 2023 | Blog
Apostrophes (’) may seem minor in the grand scheme of academic writing, yet their correct use is central to the writer’s respectability. At best, misusing an apostrophe will confuse your readers and dilute the effectiveness of your work. At worst, it will prompt your audience to stop taking you seriously altogether. Mastering the use of apostrophes is an absolutely critical part of ensuring the professionalism of your academic work.
This comprehensive guide offers a clear, methodical breakdown of correct apostrophe use, and writers of all stripes will benefit from bookmarking it.
Understanding Apostrophes: The Basics
Apostrophes serve two primary functions in English: indicating possession and forming contractions. While this seems straightforward enough, knowing exactly where to place an apostrophe can be challenging.
There are also myriad more complex rules governing edge cases that don’t make it into the average how-to guide and are therefore not widely understood, even by native English speakers.
Let’s get right down to it. Apostrophes are used to:
1. Indicate Possession
For singular nouns and indefinite pronouns, add an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ (e.g., the student’s book; anyone’s guess).
For plural nouns ending in ‘s’, add only an apostrophe (e.g., the students’ books). For plural nouns not ending in ‘s’, add an apostrophe and ‘s’ (e.g., children’s playground). Avoid errors like womens’ and childrens’.
Use an apostrophe on the final noun to show joint ownership (e.g., Alice and Bob’s research means that Alice and Bob are doing their research together).
Place apostrophes on both nouns to indicate separate ownership (e.g., Alice’s and Bob’s lab coats means that both Alice and Bob have lab coats – each person has their own).
2. Form Contractions and Show Elision
Apostrophes are used to show omitted letters in contractions (e.g., do not becomes don’t). Academic writing tends to avoid contractions to maintain a formal tone, so use these sparingly, if at all.
When an apostrophe marks the omission of an initial or a final letter, the apostrophe is preceded or followed by a full space (e.g., rock ’n’ roll). When the apostrophe replaces a letter that appears mid-word, no space is used (e.g., ma’am).
3. Form Plurals (Sometimes)
I know, I know – this runs counter to everything you’ve ever been told about apostrophes and plurals – but hear me out. In a few very clearly defined edge cases, we use apostrophes to create plurals because omitting them would create confusion. Let’s look at each of these cases in turn.
Plurals of Lowercase Letters
When lowercase letters must be referred to in plural form, apostrophes add clarity (e.g., when children first learn to write, they often confuse their b’s with their d’s).
Plurals of Capital Letters
For the same reason, we can add apostrophes to capital letters when referring to them as objects. This helps prevent miscues (e.g., she couldn’t tell whether the marks were A’s or arrows).
Plurals of Lowercase Abbreviations
When we refer to lowercase abbreviations in plural form, apostrophes help prevent miscues (e.g., academic writers sometimes have trouble telling their e.g.’s from their i.e.’s).
Plurals of Capitalized Abbreviations Containing Periods
When referring to the B.B.C.’s and the A.E.G.’s of the world in plural form, we use apostrophes. Omit the apostrophes, though, if your style guide calls for BBCs and AEGs without periods (British English tends to leave out the stops).
Plurals of Symbols
Plurals of symbols take apostrophes (e.g., she replaced all the &’s with “and”).
Plurals of Single-Digit Numerals
Single-digit numerals, when referred to as objects, can take apostrophes to aid clarity (e.g., find all the 6’s in that pile of number tiles).
- Its vs. It’s: ‘Its’ indicates possession (e.g., the cat licked its paw), while ‘it’s’ is a contraction for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ (e.g., it’s been a long day).
- Plurals vs. Possessives: With the exception of the edge cases discussed above, don’t use apostrophes to form plurals (we use apples rather than apple’s and the 1980s rather than the 1980’s).
- Possessive Pronouns: Pronouns like hers, yours, ours, theirs, whose, and its are possessive but do not require apostrophes.
- Spans of Time: In expressions of spans of time, we use an apostrophe after the unit of time: a few weeks’ holiday, two days’ grace. If you can replace the apostrophe with the word of, then you can use an apostrophe in the phrase (two weeks of holiday = two weeks’ holiday).
- Compound Nouns and Noun Phrases: Place the apostrophe after the final noun in the compound noun or noun phrase (e.g. my brother-in-law’s horses; student nurses’ schedules).
- Double Possessives: Both of and the apostrophe s are used with nouns and pronouns relating to people or with personal names (e.g., that car of her sister’s caused more trouble than it was worth; he was a friend of Robert’s).
- Residences and Places of Business: I’m visiting the hairdresser’s; I’m at Aveleigh’s.
- Singular Names Ending in ‘S’: It’s customary to add an apostrophe s to singular names that end in s (e.g., Dickens’s novels).
- Biblical Names: Jesus’ is an accepted archaic form; in non-liturgical contexts, prefer Jesus’s.
- Classical Names: Style guides differ on this point. Hart’s Rules notes that, conventionally, an apostrophe alone is used after classical names ending in s or es: Socrates’ death, Euripides’ tragedies. For shorter names, the apostrophe s is permissible: Zeus’s revenge. The Chicago Manual of Style advises using the apostrophe s in classical names of two or more syllables even though we wouldn’t pronounce the additional s: Euripedes’s tragedies. Either form is defensible here; just be consistent throughout the text.
- French Names: Use an apostrophe s after names that end in a silent s, x or z when used possessively: Descartes’s theories, Camus’s novels.
- Plurals of Surnames: When visiting your neighbours, Mary Jones and Bryce Jones, you are visiting the Joneses, not the Jones’s or the Jones’.
- Possessives of Plural Surnames: If your neighbours were to supply you with a particularly wonderful meal, you might later tell a friend about the dinner you enjoyed at the Joneses’.
- Established Businesses: The names of many large businesses originally ended in possessive apostrophes that have, over time, disappeared; these are now written as though they were plurals (e.g., Macys, Harrods, Barclays Bank, Publishers Weekly). Other institutions (e.g., Levi’s) have retained their apostrophes. Never change a consistently applied style without checking with the author. Always check whether the names of places or organizations that end in s ought to have an apostrophe – it’s impossible to tell without consulting the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers or Editors, the institution’s own website, or a gazetteer or encyclopedic dictionary, as there’s no real rhyme or reason here.
- Abbreviations Functioning as Verbs: The board has OK’d our proposal.
- For … sake expressions: For goodness’ sake receives the apostrophe only, for the sake of euphony. For expedience’s sake receives an apostrophe s in the usual way.
Ninja-Level Apostrophe Mastery for Editors
- You might occasionally be called on to write something like the ’90s, where the apostrophe precedes the balance of the text. Your word processor, bless its soul, will helpfully autocorrect the apostrophe to an opening quotation mark, leaving you with the ‘90s. The apostrophe is now facing the wrong way and is therefore no longer an apostrophe at all. Spotting and correcting this kind of thing puts you in the 99th percentile of editors – an editing ninja.
- When a singular or plural name or term is italicised, the possessive apostrophe s that follows is set in roman text: the Telegraph’s chief editor; the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
- Word processors don’t distinguish between apostrophes and single closing quotation marks. When a word ends in an apostrophe, no period or comma should intervene between the word and the apostrophe; be mindful of this when running global find and replace actions, for instance to change a document from British punctuation style to American punctuation style.
- Avoid forming the possessive of an abbreviation that is followed by a spelled-out form in parentheses (or vice versa): write the long history of NASA (the National Aeronautical and Space Administration), not NASA’s (the National Aeronautical and Space Administration’s) long history.
Apostrophes, tiny as they are, play an outsize role in clear and respectable writing. When in doubt, consult a reputable style guide or seek advice from an experienced editor, who can provide clarity on obscure rules and ensure that your writing stands out for the right reasons.
Anne Waddingham | New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
Bryan A. Garner | The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation
Chicago University Press | The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition
Grammarbook | Apostrophes
Oxford University Press | New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors