A Writer’s Bane: The Disease’s of Apostrophe’s

its vs its todays lesson chalkboardI first began to notice it many years ago. Some people had trouble with its and it’s, a common confusion. But then it began to spread, like a cancer, across Facebook and Twitter, those bastions of common usage and colloquialism. When it began showing up in writers’ forums, I knew it was reaching epic proportions. The virulent, creeping Disease’s of the Apostrophe’s.

  • “I bought some DVD’s …”
  • “How many like’s can I get …”
  • “Where can I promote my book’s for Kindle…”

I get it when it comes to the its and it’s. Most possessives have an apostrophe, as in Pandora’s box or Burke’s law. But pronouns (which it is) don’t — like his, her and their. The apostrophe in it’s is because it’s a contraction (of it is), not because it’s a possessive case.

Of course the vast majority of possessives do use the apostrophe. My father’s house. A child’s plaything. Any noun or proper noun will use the apostrophe when it’s in a possessive case. But those first examples singled out above? Where’s the possessive in any of those? There are no possessives and there are no contractions, ergo … NO apostrophe needed.

Just because a word ends in s doesn’t mean it needs an apostrophe.

To add to the confusion, in possessive cases, the use of apostrophes changes with the number of objects. A singular object, my sister’s book, requires the apostrophe between the noun and the s. However, if I have 5 or 10 sisters, and they all have books, then it becomes my sisters’ books — apostrophe after the s (which signifies the plural).

Then the whole issue devolves into the murk when we use the possessive of a noun that ends in s. Mr. Jones’s car. Strunk and White, in their Elements of Style, insist that we always use the additional s, and the Chicago Manual of Style says either with or without is correct, but they prefer the additional s, as well. There are some arguments against that, however. I’ve seen some discussions that insist that Strunk and White wrote almost 100 years ago and so are a bit outdated, and that the second s is never needed. Others say it depends on how the word is spoken. If the second s is spoken, it’s necessary in the written word. Phonetically, if we’re saying Mr. Jones-es car, we need the second s. If we’re saying Mr. Jones car, then we don’t. This is one area where it seems to come down to personal style. My own preference is no second s (seems cleaner to me), but obviously I’m not the one making the rules here.

Now, is all that perfectly clear?

Just make sure you get your apostrophe’s in the right place’s, and make sure you really, really need them. Remember, if your word’s are not possessive’s or contraction’s, they don’t need apostrophe’s at all. Don’t fall victim to the Disease’s of Apostrophe’s.

[If you need a refresher on the basics of apostrophes, please see Cathy Speight’s article.]

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

22 thoughts on “A Writer’s Bane: The Disease’s of Apostrophe’s”

  1. I think where a lot of people go wrong is where they have a number with an ‘s’ after it, and think they have to distinguish between the two, as in “the 1960’s.” Which I have always assumed is not needed, “the 1960s.”
    Another problem: “a week’s work” and four weeks’ work,” which just follows the rules you stated above.

    1. That’s how I’d write 1960s, Gordon. Remembering whether the noun is singular or plural possessive, or is even possessive at all, helps a lot. “Its” is a possessive pronoun, which I think sometimes mixes people up. I’ve actually seen the word written with an apostrophe after the “s” (its’)!

    2. Yes, Gordon, I see that all the time, too (and used to do it myself!). As the problem became more pervasive, I realized it was a wrong usage, and have since hunted down apostrophes with a vengeance. The differences with plurals (a week’s worth vs. four weeks’ worth) seems to give a lot of people trouble, too, which is why I threw it in there. The rules are simple enough (I think), if we just take a minute to remember them.

  2. Melissa, you are too kind. Unless it’s a typo, no writer should confuse it’s with its. If a word is plural, add an “s,” even for family names: The Smiths will be in town next week. If it’s singular possessive, add an apostrophe and an “s”: I like Mary Smith’s attitude. If it’s plural possessive, add an apostrophe after the “s”: Did you see the Smiths’ new SUV? Like you, I prefer only one “s” when someone’s name ends in “s.” And this is just Linda Williams’ opinion. LOL. (Love your last paragraph!)

    1. The problem is, I know perfectly intelligent, educated people who still mix them up, so while I’d rather tactfully suggest they try to remember the rules–it still drives me crazy! I edited a book for one author and I do believe that every instance of it’s and its was backward from what it should have been. It’s definitely an Achilles’ heel for many writer folk!

  3. I wonder if it’s because some of those nouns are new – e.g. DVD – and so people don’t know how to make them plural?

  4. Thanks for the reminder, Melissa. I know the rules. I use the rules correctly. Now, if only auto-correct would leave things alone, then maybe there would be less mistakes.

    1. LOL, Vicky! Isn’t that the truth? Auto-correct drives me crazy, and it’s not unusual for it to be wrong, grammatically as well as guessing what word we want. Sometimes it’s handy and sometimes it’s just a pain in the neck.

  5. One that drives me crazy is when people write “your” instead of “you’re”.
    Oh, and how about the period AFTER the quote? Isn’t the way it’s written above correct in this instance?

    1. Kaelin, two more of my pet peeves. However, much as the period after the quote bugs the crap out of me, that’s common usage in the UK, I believe. Others here could speak to that better than I can.

  6. I agree we would speak of the 1960s. By the same set of rules, we would speak of the 1960’s Hippy Culture. Am I correct in this assessment?

  7. I’m with you on that, Judy. As Melissa said earlier, a noun is a noun. Even if it’s a number. “1960” singular, “the 1960s” plural, “1960’s best singer” possessive, and if you really want to get strange, “The 1960s’s best singer,” plural possessive. Which of course sounds much better as “The best singer of the 1960s.”
    My usual trick; if it starts looking weird, duck.

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