Where, oh, Where Does That Little Mark Go?

by Cherie Tucker

Those pesky apostrophes confound so many.  Should it go before or after the s, and why do you need one anyway?  Well, you need the apostrophe to communicate to the reader that there is a letter missing, for one thing.  It also shows ownership rather than number.
We don’t seem to have trouble with the apostrophe when it signals a contraction, such as in I’m, where the apostrophe obviously stands in for the missing a.  It’s the possessive angle that trips so many up, so maybe this will help.  The missing letter in ownership—as in the king’s throne—is the letter e. Going back to Middle English, ownership of nouns was shown by adding es, as in the kinges book.  Over the years, the apostrophe took the place of that e and continues to be used today. 

By some.  So in case you are confounded by this concept, here are the tricks of the trade:

  • First, decide if the word to which you have added an sowns something or has just become more than one.  Does your dog have a dish, making it the dish of thedog? Or do you have more than one dog?  (The of thetest is helpful in quandaries.)

  • Then, if you have a singular (only one) noun (the name of a person or thing or concept) that does not end in s, you add an apostrophe first and then an s.  So with only one dog, you have the dog’s dish. (If the word ends in s, such a boss, you may follow this rule or just add the apostrophe to avoid the creation of a spoken syllable.  So:  my boss’s desk, but New Orleans’ restaurants.)

  • If you have a plural (more than one) noun, you add the sfirst and then the apostrophe.  So with two or more dogs that share one dish, you would write: the dogs’ dish, making it the dish of the dogs—all of them.

  • In the case of words that become plural by changing their spelling, such as man/menchild/children, you treat them as if they were singular and put the apostrophe before the s, as in the men’s room or children’s shoes.

Many people feel that any word that ends in an must contain an apostrophe.  I saw some colorful signs at a Public Market fish stand that read “clam’s,” “mussle’s,” and “oyster’s.”  The words were in blue, the apostrophes in red.

Please, writers, as you go back over your rough drafts, stop at every apostrophe and decide whether or not you really meant it. 

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com

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