Apostrophes and Their Applications

May 16, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

Apostrophes are important little punctuation marks. Most people know that they can be used in different ways. For example, one of their functions is to indicate that letters or numbers have been removed: it’s (it is), can’t (cannot), and the ‘80s (the 1980s).

A lesser known function of the apostrophe is to form plurals that would be otherwise difficult to decode. Here are a few examples: Be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s! How many n’s are in the name Jennifer? And this one: The student received three B’s and two A’s on his report card.

Lastly, apostrophes indicate possession: Jennifer’s knitting, the cat’s dish, and the office’s address are examples. So far all seems fairly straightforward, but there are some times when placing the apostrophe feels more fraught. This especially occurs when indicating possession with nouns that end in the letter <s>. Let’s see if we can clarify some of that confusion.

First off, let’s discuss when NOT to put in an apostrophe. One of the more common times an apostrophe is misapplied is when the year-end holiday cards are mailed. The <s> in this case indicates the plural form. The card is coming from all of the members of the family; therefore, it is proper form to write, “Happy Holidays from the Mausers,” not, “Happy Holidays from the Mauser’s.” If you happen to have a name that ends in <s>, add on an <es> to indicate the plural form instead: “Happy New Year from the Williamses.”

But what if you want to indicate possession for a singular noun that ends in <s>? In the past it was common to simply place an apostrophe at the end of the noun: Bess’ party, for example. That approach has fallen out of favor, however, because it ignores pronunciation. It is now considered correct grammar to add on an apostrophe-s, like this: Bess’s party. If the noun is plural, however, it is mechanically correct to indicate possession with an apostrophe at the end: The poems’ editors and the councils’ joint policies are two examples.

Students in high school and college writing courses should double check their instructor’s style guide to confirm how to indicate singular possessives for nouns that end in <s>. While it is generally considered correct as I’ve described it above, it is possible that the instructor prefers the older method instead. If you would like to teach your students more about proper punctuation, consider implementing Fix It! Grammar, which addresses these questions and more. You can try out some free lessons by visiting this link: IEW.com/free-grammar.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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