“What’s the most common grammar and punctuation mistake that authors make in their manuscripts?” I’m often asked when I give my editing workshop. I’ve lost count of the number of queries, sample chapters, and full manuscripts I’ve reviewed — and I’d have to say it’s misuse of the apostrophe.
The simple rules.
1. Yes: Use an apostrophe preceding the S to indicate possession. Use it after the S if the word is plural to indicate possession of a plural word. Or add an apostrophe-S at the end of words ending in S or the EEZ or S sound.*
2. No: Don’t use an apostrophe to indicate plurality.
3. Yes: Do use an apostrophe for contractions — indicating something is missing.
The most common error I see is the use of an apostrophe when it isn’t needed. Decades do NOT need apostrophes. It is 80s and 90s, NOT 80’s and 90’s. They aren’t possessive, merely plural. Nothing is missing, so they are not a contraction. Ditto for acronyms. “AT&T’s new plan” would be correct because the usage is possessive. It is AT&T’s plan. “The AT&Ts of the world . . . ” is a plural usage, so no apostrophe. This goof is often called the “produce manager’s apostrophe” because of those cardboard hand-lettered signs proclaiming “Tomato’s & Banana’s Sale.”
One real quirk messes with us — adding the apostrophe AFTER the final S for plural use. And doing it incorrectly can alter meaning. Example: The manager’s decision or the managers’s* decision. In the first instance, one manager made a decision and in the second, all the managers made a decision.
Apostrophes for contractions, most folks get right, until the confusing its/it’s. This is the rule-breaker seemingly designed to confuse the issue. “Don’t” we know stands for “do not” and we know that the apostrophe is a stand-in for the missing O. “It’s” uses the apostrophe to substitute for the missing I in “it is”. Which would be the same way we think should represent the possessive for “it”. Some bigwig grammar authorities in another era decreed that “its” should be used (sans apostrophe) instead. So learn that one exception and you’ll be fine.
Sometimes you just need to let common sense guide your decision — but if you bend a rule, be sure to do it consistently. Writer’s Conference or Writers Conference or Writers’s Conference? The first is a conference for a single writer, so that won’t work. The second seems clear enough, but possibly “incorrect.” The last is likely the most “correct” but awkward for graphic design. The solution comes from the bible of publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style, that states punctuation like apostrophes can be deleted in titles, logos, corporate dressing and the like. Chicago goes on to say that consistency is king, so if you’re going to break a rule, do it to enhance clarity for the reader and do it consistently. Thus Writers Conference is the winner. Wanting further confirmation, I checked www.ShawGuides.com (a great resource listing writers conferences all over the world) and I discovered most of them do not use the apostrophe. Home free!
Then there are the commonly used apostrophes that are just plain wrong. Mens’ should be Men’s if you mean possessive (because the word “men” is already plural. Likewise for Childrens’ Books (it should be Children’s Books) as the word children is plural. Video’s or photo’s are plural by simply adding an S (videos, photos) but I often see that errant apostrophe.
*I promised to keep it simple. But to make the “rules” even more confusing, Chicago, in the new 16th edition, now adds apostrophe-S to the end of words with the “eez” or “s” sound. For the definitive answers, acquire a copy.
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