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Apostrophes, explained

The world's most beautiful apostrophe.
The world's most beautiful apostrophe.
Joe Posner/Vox

Apostrophes are by far the most misused and abused punctuation mark in the English language. Many people seem to have absolutely no idea how to use them. Are they to pluralize? Are they for contractions? Are they meant to indicate a possessive?

The answer is all of the above. That's what makes apostrophes so confusing to many people: They're so versatile that it's hard to gauge when it's not right to use them.

It shows. Apostrophe catastrophes are so common that they've even inspired a genre of writing — including at Vox! — in which journalists take time out from putting together hot takes and breaking news to teach readers proper grammar.

You may be wondering why any of this matters, and I'm not going to oppose your nihilism. But apostrophes offer an exciting opportunity to show other people how smart and educated you are. That should be a good enough reason to read this short explainer and share it with your friends on as many social media platforms as possible.

Possessiveness: the best use of an apostrophe

The most basic use of an apostrophe is to show possession. The general rule of thumb: Singular words get an apostrophe and an s, and plural words get an apostrophe.

Example: The duck-sized horses' numbers outmatched the horse-sized duck's strength.

Things can get a little tricky with words that end with the letter s, like Charles. Depending on the writing style you adhere to, you can add just an apostrophe (Charles') or an apostrophe and an s (Charles's). So either can work, although more civilized people prefer adding both an apostrophe and an s. But whatever you do, be consistent.

One common mistake occurs with words that end with the letter y, like company, for which people add "ies" (to spell out, for example, companies'). This is not necessary unless you want to make the word plural. If you only want to turn the word possessive, just add an apostrophe and an s (company's).

Another common issue is irregular plural words, like children and teeth. For these words, you add an apostrophe and an s — so children's toys and teeth's roots.

Contractions: another great, but sometimes tricky, use of apostrophes

Apostrophes also have the wonderful — but sometimes butchered — ability to literally combine words. So with an apostrophe, you have the incredible power to merge "you" and "are" into "you're." Whoa!

Some other examples: "They are" turns into "they're," "who is" turns into "who's," and "do not" turns into "don't." "Cannot" is also a special word that can be shortened into "can't," because the world is filled with weird, beautiful things and we don't have time to say two syllables.

The great conflict here is "its" vs. "it's." The simple rule is that "its" signifies possession ("it" owns something), and "it's" can also be written as "it is." One easy way to get this right is to sound out the sentence with "it is." If "it is" doesn't work, then you probably mean to use "its."

Along these lines, sometimes people mix up other similar-sounding words — so they write "they're" when they mean "their" or "who's" when they mean "whose." This is an absolute disaster. Again, the easy way to get ahold of this problem is to sound out the sentence with the contraction split into two words. For example, "they're lawnmower" is obviously wrong if you pronounce it out as "they are lawnmower," unless you mean to say that a group of people or things is one lawnmower, which is a weird situation.

Since some people can never get a handle on this, the best strategy for them might be to give up on it all and avoid apostrophes for contractions. So skip the "it's" and use "it is."

Pluralization: Stop using apostrophes for it — with one exception

The most common and by far the worst mistake is when people use apostrophes to pluralize a word. This is an easy way to get German Lopez to mark your email as spam.

With one exception that will almost certainly not come up in your daily life, do not use apostrophes to pluralize. The plural of duck is ducks, not duck's. The plural of mother is mothers, not mother's. The plural of status is statuses, not status's. And so on.

This also applies to acronyms. For example, the plural of MD (master's degree) is MDs, not MD's.

Here's a handy guide by writer Kate Brannen for pluralizing names, which often trips people up:

A chart of how to pluralize last names. Kate Brannen/Slate

There is one very, very rare exception: Sometimes an apostrophe is needed for clarity. The Chicago Manual of Style explains:

Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.

This exception can also apply to when you want to pluralize a word with special clarity — for example, "These are the do's and don'ts of apostrophes."

But generally, you should not use an apostrophe to pluralize a word.

Why do apostrophes matter?

Ultimately they don't, because nothing matters. Being a grammar stickler in informal conversation is also pretty gross and generally should be avoided, so there's a good case that apostrophes really don't matter.

But apostrophes do offer a chance to show other people how smart you are — and that does count for something.

I can't even begin to tell you how many résumés and cover letters get thrown out because they have very basic grammar and spelling errors. Mastering apostrophes, then, offers a fairly simple way to quickly rise above everyone else as they struggle to spell words correctly. It might not get you hired, but it might get you in the door.

Plus, getting it right takes barely any effort once you know how. Just do it.