The apostrophe is the most misused symbol on the keyboard today. I have never understood the confusion about apostrophes, but apparently they are very confusing to a lot of people, and I want to help eliminate any confusion, so I’ll try to explain them as simply and clearly as I can.
Apostrophes are generally used for two things: to make a possessive, and to indicate that one or more characters are missing in a word.
The cat that lives with Tom is called Tom’s cat. (I won’t say “belongs to Tom” because anyone who knows anything about cats knows that they don’t really “belong” to any human. It might even be the other way around, with Tom belonging to the cat. In that case, it would be the cat’s human, Tom.) That is an example of a possessive. Here are a few more:
- Sherry’s wine
- the library’s book
- the story’s plot
- the bathwater’s heat
- the light from five candles’ flames
- the chocolate’s flavor
Put those together, and you might have a fabulous evening. Note that a word that already ends in the letter “s” gets the apostrophe at the end of the word, after the final “s.” This applies whether it is plural or not.
Using an apostrophe to make a contraction
Another way an apostrophe is used is to create a contraction. If Mr. Data from Star Trek began using contractions like an English-speaking human does, instead of saying “It is highly improbable,” he would say, “It’s highly improbable.” The letter “i” is missing in the contraction. A contraction pulls together two words into one, and something gets squeezed out in the process. That letter “i” went sailing through the space-time continuum. No telling where all the ejected letters end up…
Apostrophes to create a plural
An apostrophe is never used to create a plural. If you add an apple to your grocery basket, and one is already there, you are not buying apple’s, you’re buying apples (see, there’s another contraction—and another—and the letters “a” and “i” just went screaming through the universe).
To make a plural, just add an “s” (in some cases, an “es”), like this:
- one car –> two cars
- a toy –> many toys
- one manager –> too many managers
You will see the “apostrophe to make a plural” mistake all over the place—on signs, especially. Your next-door neighbors’ sign should say “The Waterbergers live here,” not “The Waterberger’s live here.” Every year at Christmastime, this apostrophe-use error crops up in millions of greeting cards because people don’t know how to make a last name plural.
Recap: use apostrophes to make possessives (not plurals) and to make contractions. Add ‘s or just an apostrophe after the “s” if the word ends in an “s.” The name Charles is a good example: Charles’ coat. Jesus’ love for mankind. The three cars’ beautiful paint jobs.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll combine some of Sherry’s wine, the library’s book, the story’s plot, the bathwater’s heat, the light from five candles’ flames, and the chocolate’s flavor—and relax for a bit.