Apostrophe Abuse: It … must … stop!

This week we’re talking about the much-maligned apostrophe, a mark of punctuation that has been incorrectly used by so many in American pop culture over the past few years (maybe even the past decade) that even I have been known to fall victim to popular but incorrect usage from time to time. (And believe me, you couldn’t punish me more than I’ve punished myself for those offenses. I mean, this is how civilization declines, people—one misplaced apostrophe at a time!)

Briefly, an apostrophe is that curly thing that looks like an upside-down comma.

I know, you’ve probably seen it misused so often, you probably don’t know what I’m fussing about. It’s understandable, but we need to turn the current tide of incorrect usage. We need to learn what’s right and set a shining example for the rest of the country!

It’s not that hard, actually. There are only three uses for the apostrophe:

  1. To indicate ownership or possession (something belonging to something else).
    Example: My husband’s eyes are blue. 
    (Hopefully this needs no additional clarification.)
  2. To indicate that letters are missing from a word.
    Example: I dont see the ball.
    The apostrophe takes the place of the second “o” in “do not.”
    I do not see the ball.
    (I think everyone gets this one, too.)
  3. To indicate the plural…of a lower-case letter. That’s it.
    Example: Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

So, for example, when you see people add an apostrophe to indicate plural years, it’s wrong.

  • I went to school in the 1990’s. – WRONG
  • I went to school in the 1990s. – CORRECT
  • But…I went to school in the ‘90s. – CORRECT
    (In this case, the apostrophe takes the place of the omitted “19” in 1990.)

When you see people add an apostrophe to indicate simple plurals of proper nouns/names, it’s wrong.

  • We went to dinner with the Baker’s. – WRONG
  • We went to dinner with the Bakers. – CORRECT
  • But…We drove to dinner in the Bakers’ car. – CORRECT.
    In this case, the car belongs to the Bakers (plural), so the apostrophe is used to indicate possession.

And now for the double-whammy of apostrophe confusion: possessive pronouns (especially the ones with s’s):  its, his, hers, yours, theirs.

The first thing to understand is that the following are not words, period:


If you see any of these, a discussion of usage is meaningless and unnecessary because they aren’t real words. If you see any of these in a sentence and don’t know how to make the sentence right, reword it.

Examples of correct usage:

  • The dog chewed its bone.
  • Sam says the dog is  his.
  • Sally says the dog is hers.
  • I say the dog is yours, not theirs.

Caution: “it’sis a word. In this case, the apostrophe takes the place of the second “i” in “it is.”

It’s odd to see the dog chew its bone.

In conclusion, we know apostrophes can be confusing. We know you’re inundated on a daily basis with examples of incorrect usage. Just remember those three reasons to use an apostrophe, and you’ll be fine.

For more information about the apostrophe and its uses, you might want to check out what Purdue University’s OWL has to say on the subject.

Words (and apostrophes) matter!