Apostrophe Misuse (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives
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Apostrophe Misuse

Apostrophe misuse usually falls into one of the following four categories:

(1) Using an apostrophe for a plural.
  • We have a two-for-one offer on banana's. wrong cross
  • We have a two-for-one offer on bananas. correct tick
(2) Misplacing a possessive apostrophe.
  • The boys' nose was covered in chocolate. wrong cross
  • The boy's nose was covered in chocolate. correct tick
(3) Misplacing an apostrophe in a contraction.
  • Your idea is'nt possible. wrong cross
  • Your idea isn't possible. correct tick
(4) Inventing a contraction.
  • You shouldn't've done it. wrong cross
  • You should not've done it. wrong cross
  • You shouldn't have done it. correct tick
apostrophe misuse

More about These Apostrophe Misuses

(Misuse 1) Do Not Use an Apostrophe to Form a Plural Noun

Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural. (It is considered a serious misuse of the apostrophe.) For example:
  • Dog's look up to us, and cat's look down on us. I prefer pig's because they treat us as equal's. wrong cross
  • (These are all wrong.)
  • Dogs look up to us, and cats look down on us. I prefer pigs because they treat us as equals. correct tick
This error is commonly seen with an abbreviation or a noun that ends in a vowel.
  • Two CD's for the price of one wrong cross
  • two video's wrong cross
  • two patio's wrong cross
When an apostrophe is misused in this way, it is known as a greengrocer's apostrophe. This terms comes from the tendency of greengrocers to misuse apostrophes on their signs (e.g., apple's, banana's). Read about the rules for forming plurals.
Read about using apostrophes for awkward plurals.

(Misuse 2) When Using an Apostrophe for Possession, Put It on the Correct Side of the S

Here are some examples of possessive apostrophes being misused:
  • My smallest dogs' nose is white. wrong cross
  • Both of my dog's noses are white. wrong cross
  • Support our childrens' education. wrong cross
The big question with a possessive apostrophe is whether to put the apostrophe before the "s" or after the "s."

Here's the general rule for nouns that form their plural by adding an "s" or "es," which is most of them:

General Rule for Possessive Apostrophe Placement

If the possessor is singular, the apostrophe goes before the s.
  • the country's problems correct tick
If the possessor is plural, the apostrophe goes after the s.
  • the countries' problems correct tick
Here are some more examples:
  • The cat's dinner correct tick (for one cat)
  • The cats' dinner correct tick (for more than one cat)
  • (It does not matter whether "dinner" is singular or plural. It has no influence whatsoever on the apostrophe.)
  • I live a stone's throw away. correct tick (for one stone)
  • The stones' history is fascinating. correct tick (for more than one stone)
The possessor is the thing that owns whatever follows. In the first example, the possessor is "cat." In the second, it is "cats." (Be aware that the word "owns" is used in a loose sense. The possessive apostrophe is not always about possession or ownership.) Read more about the possessive case. Unfortunately, there are a few more rules on possessive-apostrophe placement:

The Last Two Rules for Possessive Apostrophe Placement

If a plural noun does not end in "s" (e.g., children, people), then the apostrophe comes before the "s" in the possessive form.
  • the children's classroom correct tick
If a singular noun ends in "s" (e.g., Jones, Moses), then the possessive form can be shown by adding just ' or 's.
  • Jones' report correct tick, or
  • Jones's report correct tick
Read more about apostrophes used for possession.
Do some exercises on using apostrophes.

(Misuse 3) When Forming a Contraction, Put the Apostrophe in the Correct Place

When forming a contraction, make sure you use the apostrophe to replace the missing letter(s). It's not a common mistake, but it's a bad mistake. For example:
  • Your answer is'nt accurate. wrong cross
  • Your'e going to pay for that! wrong cross

(Misuse 4) Do Not Invent Your Own Contractions

Apostrophes can be used to replace letters to form contractions (e.g., can't, don't, isn't, shan't). There is a list of acceptable contractions. You cannot invent your own ones. For example:
  • I wouldn't've gone if I had known. wrong cross
  • Can you play the g'tar? wrong cross

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See Also

Using apostrophes Apostrophes for possession Apostrophe placement rules Apostrophe after s Apostrophe after z Apostrophe before s Apostrophes for awkward plurals Apostrophes after acronyms and abbreviations Apostrophes in contractions Apostrophes in expressions like 2 years' pay and a day's notice Apostrophes used incorrectly for plurals Apostrophe exercises Apostrophes in names Apostrophes in contractions Using brackets and parentheses Using colons Using commas Using dashes Using hyphens Using quotation marks Using semicolons "Apostrophes for possession" game (Tetris-style game) "Apostrophes in time expressions" game (Tetris-style game)