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Opinion

A Word, Please: Follow these tips for apostrophes to guarantee proper use

Oxford English Dictionary
The Apostrophe Protection Society’s founder shuts down the organization’s website, but discussions about apostrophes continue.
(File photo)

Great news for everyone on Team Laziness and Ignorance. We won!

That’s the parting shot from the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, 96-year-old retired journalist John Richards, who shut down the group’s website after 18 years of unsuccessfully battling the ignorance of all us ignoramuses.

Actually, his farewell was a little wordier: “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” These words make clear that you’re either with Richards or you’re ignorant and lazy. And I’m not with him.

Yes, I know it’s odd for a grammar columnist who gives advice on apostrophes to ally with Team Ignorant About Apostrophes. But if Richards is going to divide the world into supporters and dummies, I say pass the dunce caps.

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I’m actually a fan of proper apostrophe use. And I’ll confess I wince a little when I see them misused. But my philosophy, with apologies to Eugene Debs, is: Wherever there is a less-educated class being ridiculed by people who went to better schools, I am in it. If you’re going to brand as “lazy” a widowed mother of three who has to work two jobs while taking care of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s just because she doesn’t share your priorities, you’ve lost me.

But for folks who do have the time and energy to care about apostrophes, here’s a quick overview of rules that can help you avoid this kind of ridicule.

Never use an apostrophe to form a plural. I know it looks funny to add an S to the end of luau or bronco or bonsai or Cho, but an apostrophe is not the solution. Even words that end in vowels and would seem to change their vowel sounds if you put an S after them still take an S to form the plural: luaus, broncos, bonsais, Chos.

There’s one exception to this rule: when the S really could cause confusion without an apostrophe. Some newspapers have a policy of writing student grades as A’s and Bs, with an apostrophe only for the A grades because without it you get the word “as.” Abbreviations in contexts where all the letters are capitalized can get an apostrophe, too, if the plural S could be misconstrued as part of the abbreviation. DVD’S FOR SALE is probably better than DVDS FOR SALE.

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Use apostrophe plus S to form a possessive of a singular not ending in S. You know this already. The dog’s tail. Joe’s house. Easy.

Use an apostrophe only to form the possessive of a plural that ends in S. If you’re talking about the tails of multiple dogs, they’re the dogs’ tails. If you’re talking about the tailpipes of multiple cars, they’re the cars’ tailpipes. If a plural doesn’t end in S, add apostrophe and S. “Children” is plural, but unlike “kids” it doesn’t end in S. So you would write about a children’s program, not a childrens’ program.

If a singular word ends in S, you have a choice whether to add another S after the apostrophe. In Chicago style, which book publishers follow, it’s James’s hat. In Associated Press style, which news media follow, it’s James’ hat. Pick a method and stick with it.

Know your its from your it’s. Think of its as a member of a club — along with his, hers, ours and theirs — that take no apostrophe even though possessive. Just as “That car is hers,” not her’s, you’d say, “The car blew its gasket.” With an apostrophe, “it’s” is always a contraction of either “it is” or “it has.” It’s a nice day. It’s been great talking to you.

If those quick tips leave you wanting more and you don’t mind a side of superiority with your apostrophe instructions, you’ll be happy to hear that the Apostrophe Protection Society will relaunch its website next year with a new webmaster who, hopefully, will tone down the talk about laziness and ignorance.

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