Fun with Apostrophes

For such a tiny punctuation mark, apostrophes sure seem to cause a lot of problems.

Here’s the basic rule for apostrophes:

Use an apostrophe to:

  • Show possession
  • Show where other letters should be

Do not use an apostrophe to:

  • Make something plural

That’s about the gist of it. Are there exceptions? Sure. There usually are, with grammar. But if you can commit to getting to where you feel comfortable with the above, you will find that your writing is suddenly clearer, the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and angels will sing from the heavens.

Okay, not really, but using apostrophes correctly really does make a difference in your writing.

Here are some examples to illustrate the above:

Show Possession

The keys are Jennifer’s.

You don’t have multiple Jennifers, right? (see? No apostrophe = plural)

But the keys belong to Jennifer. She possesses them. They are Jennifer’s keys.

You use an apostrophe to show that that the keys belong to Jennifer, not that there are many Jennifers.

Show Where Other Letters Should Be

This is known as a contraction.

For example:

They’re = They are

The apostrophe is a place-holder to show where the “a” in “are” would go. We squish the words “they” and “are” together to make “they are” easier to say. (And, so that our written language mostly matches the sounds that actually come out of our mouths.)

Can’t = can not

The apostrophe stands in for the “no” in not.

Its vs It’s

This one is actually quite easy.

“It’s” falls under the “show where other letters should be” rule.

It’s = It is

The apostrophe shows where the “I” in “is” would go.

Not sure which to use? Just say it out loud. Does “It is” make sense in the context of the sentence? If so, use “it’s.” If not, it’s “its.” Heh.

What about years, you ask?

She is an ‘80s girl at heart.

You know what to do here.

The apostrophe is the place holder where other letters (or, in this case, numbers) should be.

The apostrophe is standing in for the 19 in 1980s.

And I know you have the urge to add an apostrophe before the S, but don’t. Don’t do it. Resist that urge!

The ‘80s is a decade. It refers to ten years. Multiple years = plural. And remember the cardinal rule of apostrophes: they denote possession, not plurality.

Yes: 1980s

Nope nope nope: 1980’s

Your challenge: In all of your writing for the next week, every time you go to use an apostrophe, ask yourself: Plural or possessive?

If the word is denoting possession, use an apostrophe.

If the word is simply indicating multiples/plurality, no apostrophe.

You can do this. I believe in you.



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I love etymology (the study of the origin of words). The word “apostrophe” means “to turn away.” That explains its use with contractions, though I’ll have to do more research on how it came to show possession. 


Grammar: Affect vs Effect

One of the frustrating things about learning grammar is that there are a lot of rules but also a lot of exceptions to those rules. The exceptions make it tough for people to remember things like when to use affect vs effect, or where to place those pesky commas.

One way to learn the conventions – note that I did not say “rule” – is to read a lot. The more you read, the more you grow accustomed to how language is commonly used. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because you start to feel comfortable with how to use commas most effectively. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, because you start to you write “night” like “nite.” [Shudder]

Actually, any professional linguist will tell you that language is fluid. Language changes all the time, but happens so organically that we often don’t realize it. Give it a few more decades or maybe a few hundred more years, and “nite” will become the way that word is actually spelled.

I digress.

affect effectWhen it comes to whether or not to use “affect” or “effect” there’s a rule, and then there’s when to break the rule.

Here’s the rule

In their most common usages:

Affect: verb

Effect: noun

That’s it. It’s that simple.

To affect a change means that action is taking place, so affect is a verb and gets the A spelling.

To have an effect on someone means that effect is a thing that is happening to a person, and is therefore a noun, and gets the E spelling.


If you remember the affect/verb, effect/noun convention, you’ll be right pretty much all of the time. Except, when you talk about mood. Sometimes, with psychology, affect is a noun. For example, “The patient exhibited flat affect and wasn’t showing emotion at all.”

And sometimes, effect can mean “to bring about.” For example, “The new principal hoped to effect positive change on the student body.”

But those exceptions really are exceptions. Almost all of the time, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun.

So, commit the affect/verb, effect/noun convention to memory and you’ll be in good shape.

Here’s a handy pneumonic device to help you remember:

A for activate, which is action, aka a verb. Pneumonic devices are meant to be silly so you remember them. If you say to yourself “affect activate,” you’ll remember that affect = verb.

E for elephant, which is a noun. “Elephant Effect” = noun.