Apostrophe Misuse: The ‘Greatest Solecism’ In the Punctuation World?

By Laura Graham

As I expected, my last column on the Oxford comma generated some lively feedback — and a topic for this month’s column. It turns out that there is another punctuation mark that causes almost as much angst among the readership as the Oxford comma: the apostrophe.

The readership is apparently in good company; in 2014, Grammarly.com crowned “misused apostrophes” the undisputed champion of its “Most Maddening Writing Error” challenge. One voter said, “[I]t seems like there is a whole new wave of people who believe that you NEED an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to make a word plural.”

The frustration that many grammar purists feel when they see apostrophe misuse is captured with customary wit by British author Lynne Truss in her classic, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”:

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. . . . Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.

For my part, I’m not sure that apostrophe misuse is “the greatest solecism” in the punctuation world, and it certainly doesn’t provoke a “kill” response in me; but I do find its increase troubling. Walk through any city’s shopping district, and you’ll see sign after sign, written by hand in lovely calligraphy, containing errant apostrophes: “Thursday special: $2.00 craft beer’s!” Spend five minutes on Facebook, and you’ll see at least a dozen memes that violate apostrophe rules. I saw one just today; it was a pretty picture of a soft fain falling on a garden, with the caption, “Who like’s sittin on the Porch watching it rain?”

I know my sphere of influence is small, but as a legal writing teacher, I consider it my responsibility to see that my students learn correct apostrophe usage. And though I may be preaching to the choir, I’ll share with you the fundamental rules of apostrophe usage I share with my students.

  • Never use an apostrophe and an s to form a simple plural. This is the so-called “grocer’s plural” that makes grammar purists’ blood boil: Banana’s on sale this week! Enough said.
  • Add an apostrophe and an s to show possession for all singular nouns, even those ending in s, k, x, or z. This rule often creates some awkward-looking (but correct) possessives: The Court examined Congress’s intent. The witness’s testimony was unreliable. Mr. Rodriguez’s claim was dismissed with prejudice.
  • Add only an apostrophe (with no s) to form the possessive of plural words that already end in s. Thus: She was a fierce proponent of victims’ rights.
  • Add an apostrophe and an s to form the possessive of plural words that do not end in s. Thus: She was a fierce proponent of women’s rights.
  • Use an apostrophe to indicate a contraction (it’s for it is, who’s for who is) but not in possessive pronouns (its or whose or yours). The its/it’s mistake is a frequent apostrophe error but one that’s easy to avoid; if you can replace it’s with it is, you’ve used the apostrophe correctly. The same goes for the whose/who’s mistake; if you can replace who’s with who is, you’ve used the apostrophe correctly. An apostrophe is never correct in possessive pronouns; never write her’s or their’s or our’s.
  • To show joint possession, add an apostrophe and an s to the last word. Thus: Strunk and White’s recommendation to use the Oxford comma still carries great weight.
  • Form the possessive of ancient proper names that end in es, is, and us by adding only an apostrophe. Thus: Moses’ laws or Confucius’ teachings. This apostrophe rule may not come into play often in legal writing, and I might have omitted this one from the column if not for the fact that I promised one kind reader that I would address it. (We all have our own pet peeves, right?)

There are several other apostrophe rules that space doesn’t permit me to include here. As always, I commend “The Aspen Handbook” to you; its summary of apostrophe rules is very clear and concise, and its examples are quite helpful.

The “Handbook” correctly points out that most spell-checkers cannot accurately catch errors in the use of its/it’s and whose/who’s. I advise my students that when they are editing their legal writing, they should circle every apostrophe and make sure each one is used correctly. I don’t share Lynne Truss’s view that incorrect apostrophe usage is a sign of illiteracy, but I do think that correct apostrophe usage is just one more way we can show our legal readers that we are credible and careful writers.

Do you have a grammar or punctuation pet peeve? I’m always looking for practical ideas for columns, and I do enjoy hearing from readers. So please join me in my quest to reduce the number of solecisms in our legal writing, one column at a time.

Laura Graham, Director of Legal Analysis, Writing & Research, is a professor of legal writing at Wake Forest University School of Law, where she has taught for 19 years. She welcomes email from readers at grahamlp@wfu.edu.

This column appeared originally in the November 2017 edition of North Carolina Lawyer, a member benefit of the North Carolina Bar Association.