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Beat the CRAP Out of the Apostrophe

Solving the 'apostrophe for possession problem' for good

A person with a truncheon about to beat the apostrophe s

Beat Those Apostrophes


It’s no more than a pen scratch. A flick of ink. A dash dotted here. A dot dashed there. On the delicious cake of your writing, it is a mere dusting of sugar.


For all its inconsequential appearance, the teeny tiny apostrophe is one of the most common causes of grammatical errors we make rvery day. Especially when the apostrophe is partnered with the letter ‘s’.


That’s a lot of fuss for something that only has two jobs. Seeing the apostrophe s signifies description or possession. I outlined this – and how to solve the problem caused by the pronoun “It” – here.


Armed with that knowledge, you’ve half the battle won. If the battle is one-on-one.


Now I will outline the issues faced when that battle is a war.


Welcome to the plurals.


Plurals : The Bad News


Pluralisation has many rules.


It has many more exceptions. What some lack in logic, they make up for in contradiction.


Different rules are supported by legions of linguists. In a metaphoric minefield, they hurl grammar grenades, intent on thwarting your journey of language learning.


To avoid joining this war of words, I will keep the scope of this article very tight. I will not cover the rules, sub-rules and rule-breaks around plurals. I will focus solely on how they affect the apostrophe s.


My aim is to include just enough detail. To resolve just enough of the most common mistakes. For just enough of you to find useful.


Plurals : The good news


When used with plurals, the apostrophe s has only one job.


It no longer signifies description. To do that, the apostrophe would replace the a from ‘are’ to contract with the preceding noun. I won't be covering that here because a) 'are' is out of scope, and b) the contraction of are is aesthetically displeasing and should, in my humble opinion, be banned.


(I’ve no problem with the contracting of are in pronouns. I couldn’t live without you’re, they’re, and we’re. Though admittedly each of those come with new problems. But with nouns? No thank you. If you find yourself about to write “the flowers’re pretty” or “the oranges’re tasty”, put the pen down. Step away from the ugly little fucker. It will never improve what you’re writing.)


It's also important to remember that an apostrophe s does not make any form of plural. It has no bearing on pluralisation at all. Ever.


Meaning that, with plurals, the apostrophe s always signifies possession.


Know Your Apostrophe CRAP


There is one simple trick that will help you position the apostrophe correctly. Though most of the confusion of position comes with plurals - no matter how the plural has been formed - the approach works for singular nouns too.


The approach is CRAP. Communicate. Reverse. Apostrophe Position. (For some reason, this acronym has never got traction.)


Communicate

First, think in general terms what you want to communicate. To avoid the potential plural problems, let's illustrate with the singular noun.

(To communicate) That Simon owns the oranges in the fruit bowl.


Reverse

Now, reverse this sentence. Start with the object and end with the subject (the possessor). It will be longhand, often clunky. That’s the point.

The oranges in the fruit bowl are owned by Simon.


Apostrophe Position

This is key. Place the apostrophe s immediately after the last letter of the possessor as written longhand. Keep it there. Flip the sentence back.

Simon’s oranges are in the fruit bowl.


And that’s it.


This CRAP approach will show you the right position for the apostrophe in almost every eventuality. If you always find it difficult to remember where the apostrophe s goes, just knowing this will vastly improve your odds at getting it right.


Now you're ready to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with the plurals.


The CRAP of Plurals


There are many forms of pluralisation. For the purposes of knowing where the apostrophe should be placed in plurals, we can group these together.


Regular Plurals


Any noun that adds an s to the singular form to make the plural.

A table showing examples of regular plurals

Sitting within this group are many of the exceptions to the rules of pluralisation.


Do NOT get distracted by such detail. If the final letter of the plural form is an ‘s’, that is all that matters for this rule.


We will use the CRAP approach. And the same (great) oranges.


Communicate

That nobody can eat the oranges needed to assuage the appetites of others.


Reverse

Do not eat the oranges that are for… the wives... the boys… the puppies.


Apostrophe Position

Add the apostrophe immediately after the last letter of the possessor(s) and flip back.

Do not eat the wives’the boys’the puppies’ oranges.


WORTH REMEMBERING:

For the regular plural possessive, there is no need for an additional s after the apostrophe.


Invariant Plurals


When the same word is used for both the singular and plural form.

A table showing example invariant plurals

Many invariant nouns are animals. And some of these are contentious. There are interesting reasons for both these points. Interesting, but out of scope.


Same approach. Different object. For no reason other than orange fatigue.


Communicate

That this is the place where the animals live…the aircraft are stored.


Reverse

This is the home of our (flock of) sheep…the (fleet of) old aircraft.


Apostrophe Position

Add the apostrophe immediately after the last letter of possessor(s) and flip back.

This is the sheep’s…the aircraft’s home.


WORTH REMEMBERING

When the plural uses the same word as the singular, the possessive will also be the same. Using a collective noun (such as flock or fleet, above) is not imperative but can help clarify for the reader.


Irregular Plurals


The plurals that are completely different words to the singular.

A table showing example irregular plurals

These are the plurals you just must learn. You may ask if there are helpful patterns, such as whether all words containing double vowels change in the same way? Answering such questions would, once more, be scope creep.


But remember that an apostrophe s does not form, or affect the form, of a plural.


So no matter how unusual or complicated the irregular plural, our approach to the apostrophe is still CRAP.


For this example, we will stack up the possessors.


Communicate

That this is the environment where you will find the living beings.


Reverse

The pond is the home of the geese. The pond belongs to the children. The children were adopted by the homosexuals.


Apostrophe Position

Add to each. And flip. And combine.

The geese’s home is the men’s children’s pond.


Note: The more possessives you include in one sentence, the more clunky your sentence becomes. You should never write a sentence like this. But it is technically correct.


WORTH REMEMBERING

As the plural is technically a new word, the positioning of the apostrophe follows the same rule as any singular noun. Unless the new word ends in s.


That Shitty 's'


When the singular form of the noun already ends in s, we often forget all the above. The confusion of the plural comes from the aesthetic of the singular.


In truth – for the most part – nothing changes.


Regular plural where the singular already ends with s

Let's use (drinking) glass and (drinking) glasses.


The plural still includes an additional s. So the same rules apply.

The rims of the glasses becomes the glasses’ rims.


It is the look of the singular that causes problems. We add the apostrophe s as always.

The rim of the glass becomes the glass’s rim.


This is correct, but does it look odd? Hold that thought.


Invariant plural, already ending with s

For fun, let's use glasses (spectacles) - which is the same for both singular and plural.


As an invariant, the position of the apostrophe is the same for both forms.

The case for my glasses is my glasses’ case.

The cases of glasses delivered to Specsavers are the glasses’ cases.


The anomaly here is dropping the s after the apostrophe in the singular. We are overlapping invariants with regular plurals.


Although this seems complicated, it is one of the few areas of grammar where correct is driven by common sense and preference. When a word feels like it has too many s-es at the end, it probably does. So the consensus is to not add more.


Think about it. Glasses's would sound like Glasseses. Which just sounds wrong.


Oh Jesus


This approach of preference is also used for names, especially when historic.


Think of Jesus and Mr Jones. Sadly, not the name of a 90s' indie band. According to the rules:

The disciples of Jesus would be Jesus’s disciples.

The house belonging to Mr Jones would be Mr Jones’s house.


But chances are you will see have seen Jesus’ disciples and Mr Jones’ house used just as often. So how do you decide which to use?

The best thing to do is to speak the sentence out loud and use what feels natural to you. If you would say it to sound like Jesuzes or Jonesez, go with the apostrophe s. If not, just add the apostrophe after the existing s.


Both are perfectly acceptable. Anyone who corrects you is wrong.


WORTH REMEMBERING

When it comes to the unusual s, if it sounds wrong, use what sounds right. Just be consistent in your approach. Otherwise you’ve shown no thought. And that’s just lazy.


Apostrophes beaten?


Without meaning to sound like a broken record, there will always be anomalies. Mistakes can be made by anyone at any time. If I tried to cover every eventuality, you would likely remember nothing helpful.


But if all you take with you from this is the CRAP approach and the points WORTH REMEMBERING, I guarantee that, in future, you will almost always have the apostrophe s beaten. At least, more times than it will knock you out with an unexpected sucker punch.


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