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Apostrophes: Part I

If you have trouble using apostrophes correctly, you're in good company. Many people have difficulty with apostrophes, so I'm planning to dedicate the next few newsletters to these troublesome marks of punctuation.

Before you can place an apostrophe in the correct location, you must determine whether a word even needs an apostrophe in the first place. We'll start by reviewing the main reasons for using apostrophes.

Apostrophes have two primary purposes:

1) To shorten words or phrases into contractions.

Contractions are shortened versions of words or phrases. The apostrophe is usually inserted in the spot where letters have been removed from a word or phrase. Think of words like can't, wouldn't, you're, or isn't. Most people don't have problems with placing apostrophes in contractions, so we'll concentrate on apostrophes used in possessives.

2) To signal ownership in possessives.

Possessives are words that express ownership. When you're deciding whether a word needs an apostrophe, ask yourself whether it possesses another word in the sentence. If it does, it probably needs an apostrophe. If it does not possess something, the apostrophe is not needed. Simple as that!

A quick, but important side note: most plurals do not need apostrophes! Some writers are so fearful of leaving out apostrophes that they overcompensate by placing apostrophes in every word that ends in s. This is a hard habit to break, but it can be done. Repeat after me: "Not every word that ends in s needs an apostrophe!"

Have you come across these unneeded apostrophes before?

• Join us on Thursday's for our weekly breakfast meetings.
• Good news comes in three's.
• She was certain that the suitcase was her's.

In the examples above, the words Thursdays and threes do not "own" anything, so they do not need apostrophes to show possession. They are simply plurals, and most plurals do not need apostrophes. However, the word hers DOES indicate possession, so at first glance, one might think it needs an apostrophe. This is where the infamous exception comes in.

Personal pronouns like hers, his, yours, theirs, ours, and its are possessives, but they do not need apostrophes. They cause double the confusion because they end in s, AND they indicate possession. However, they are already in possessive form, so apostrophes are not needed to indicate possession. Using  apostrophes here would be redundant.

Actually, the words hers, his, yours, and theirs should NEVER contain apostrophes. Unfortunately, I can't offer an easy trick to help you remember this, but it's definitely worth committing this rule to memory. The word its is the only word in the group that sometimes contains an apostrophe, but that's a topic that deserves a newsletter all its own! Stay tuned...

Next week we'll discuss some general rules for using apostrophes in possessives. In the meantime, keep your eye out for those "rebel" apostrophes―they're everywhere! The more you're aware of them, the better you'll be able to avoid them!

To read the next grammar tip in the apostrophes series, click here.

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