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A Tip on Apostrophes

In all the classes on grammar and punctuation I teach, the punctuation mark that causes the most confusion is the apostrophe. It’s the little mark used to show possession:

one employee’s house
two employees’ cars

I have already written Apostrophe Help Please! and More Apostrophe Help! This post is for those who just KNOW there must be more to it. There is. There is the use of apostrophes to form plurals, like these:

  • She is hoping to get three A’s.
  • I have used too many I’s in this letter.
  • Are the girls wearing pj’s?
  • Be sure to dot the i’s.
  • He regularly emails bcc’s to his manager.
  • I confused the which’s and that’s in this proposal.

Typically plurals are formed by adding s or es to a word. But in the very few circumstances when adding s or es might confuse readers, we use the apostrophe and an s.

In the examples above, readers might be confused about As, Is, pjs, is, bccs, whiches, and thats. The apostrophe makes the plural clearer.

In some of my seminars, I provide DO’S and DON’TS. In a recent writing class, someone objected to the word DO’S. In her view, the apostrophe was unnecessary. I had been using the apostrophe in DO’S so readers would not be confused by DOS, the operating system or the Spanish word for “two.” However, I have since decided to use DOS whenever I pair it with DON’TS.

Part of today’s confusion comes from the past. When I was growing up, apostrophes were used much more commonly to form plurals–in expressions such as VIP’s, 1940’s, and in the 30’s (temperature). But now all those are rendered without the apostrophe, as VIPs, 1940s, and 30s.

In your writing, you will almost never need an apostrophe to form a plural. So don’t write something like this: “All the employee’s have arrived.” It should be simply employees.

Rule: Mind your p’s and q’s, but use apostrophes for plurals rarely!

Other search spellings: pnctuation, punctuaion, punctuaton, punctiaton, puncation, punctaiton, punctation, posessive, possesive, apostrphe

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

9 comments on “A Tip on Apostrophes”

  • Love the site! I have recently set up my own blog about writing and am in awe of yours. Isn’t the apostrophe just the most beautiful punctuation mark?

  • Clare, I have to say that I have never thought of the apostrophe as beautiful. Yes, there are beautiful turns of phrase and beautiful analogies. But I see the apostrophe as more pedestrian–simply useful.

    In any case, I admire your passion for punctuation. Be sure to visit (listed in my Writing Resources at left) to see what another punctuation lover, Jeff Rubin, is doing. He even sells punctuation jewelry.

    Enjoy writing your blog.


  • Lynn,

    How does this apply to our list of to-do items – is it a list of “to-dos” or “to-do’s”?

    I see it both ways (and a google search of this site shows many instances of “Learn the secrets of productive writing to move through your to-do’s faster” though that seems to contradict this post.)


  • Steven, thanks for asking. I am using “dos and don’ts” because readers are unlikely to be confused by the word “dos” when it appears with “don’ts.” However, “to-dos” might confuse readers, depending on the context. I think that word can go either way.

    You may also find inconsistencies over time on this blog. If I decide to change a particular usage, I don’t go back and correct earlier entries to be consistent. That’s just not the nature of a blog–even one on business writing!


  • Lynn, I wasn’t as much commenting on inconsistancy as just trying to find an answer for my son; believe me, no picking-on-Lynn was intended. Thanks for the reply, you’ve confirmed what I found through my research – that there’s no “standard” way to represent the multiple items on a to-do list.

  • Hello! So… still confused slightly. Which is correct please:

    this year’s holiday party, or
    this years’ holiday party, or
    this years holiday party?


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