Writing Tip: To apostrophe or not to apostrophe…

Posted by: Bridgett.

Once upon a time, a little boy received a wonderful gift. It was a wooden box with a locking lid and key. In it, he stored all his favorite things, a list of dreams for his future, and a picture of his family. He called it his box of secrets.

One day, the box went missing from its place of honor on his bedroom shelf. The boy sought help from the wise Finder of All Things, his mom. She set out to interrogate every family member or friend who had been inside the house since the box was last seen. Mom asked one crucial question that was guaranteed to get results… 

As a freelance editor and writing coach (and when I taught in public school), one of the most common grammar errors I’ve come across is the misuse of the apostrophe in forming plural or possessive nouns.

I know what you are probably thinking. “Wait, what happened to the story?” Or, “Ugh, here comes a boring English lesson!” Or maybe, “I’m not a writer, so what does this apostrophe business matter?”

The truth is, it matters a great deal. One little apostrophe can radically change the meaning of your entire sentence. In some cases, whole paragraphs.

Consider the story above.

Which question did Mom ask?

A. Have you seen the boys box?

B. Have you seen the boy’s box?

Both are grammatically correct and sound the same when spoken, but in writing, have very different meanings. Which is right in the context of this story? (Yes, I realize the mom wouldn’t refer to her son as “the boy,” but bear with me, here.)

If the mom wrote a note to the dad asking question A, a picture would form in his mind of their son and his best buddy sparring with a pair of boxing gloves. “Boys” with no apostrophe is the plural form of “boy.”

If her note contained question B, however, the dad would have a clear image of the wooden box belonging to his son. Adding an apostrophe and “s” to a noun makes that noun possessive.

How do you know when to apostrophe and when not to apostrophe?

Plural: when you are talking about more than one of a noun (person, place, or thing)

For regular nouns that don’t end in “s” or “x”– add the letter “s” (no apostrophe)

I saw three boys, dogs, shoes, fans, houses, or towns.

For nouns ending in “y” — change the “y” to “I” and add “es”

Cities, countries, candies, babies

For nouns ending is “s” or “x” — add “es”

Bosses, boxes

For irregular nouns — some nouns are just odd. Their spellings change entirely.

Man becomes men, dwarf becomes dwarves, cactus becomes cacti.

Possessive: when something belongs to that person, place, or thing

For regular nouns that don’t end in “s” — add an apostrophe and “s.”

The boy’s toy, city’s mayor, box’s lid, man’s car, house’s roof

For nouns ending in “s” — The rule on this varies. Some sources say add only an apostrophe. Others say apostrophe and “s.”

Boss’ or boss’s. Angus’ or Angus’s

To all the writers out there, from novelists to business people, from storytellers to students, I hope you’ve enjoyed and will benefit from this writer’s tip.

Your turn to Shed Your Light below…

Can you think of humorous misuses of the apostrophe?

Is any aspect of grammar or the writing craft causing you to struggle? Let us know, and we will address it in a future “Writing Tip” post.

About the author:

Bridgett's promo2Bridgett Powers has defied the limitations of impaired vision and overcome a 21-year battle against chronic pain, all of which taught her a profound truth. God shines brightest through cracked lanterns.

Now, she shares that truth through her fantasy novels, picture book, and short stories. Her flash fiction has been published in Havoc magazine. A member of ACFW and MyBookTherapy, she also serves as co-leader and writing coach for her writer’s group, operates a proofreading and editing service, and teaches writing workshops.

About Bridgett

fantasy novelist ~ picture book and short story author ~ freelance editor ~ writing coach

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