Intensive Purposes: Apostrophes

writing editing essay

writing editing essay

As an English teacher, people assume that I’m a natural grammar whiz. While I’ve always had a knack for writing and language, my focus in school was on literature and analysis rather than the proper usage of pronouns. Grammar is the tedious part of writing (most people I talk to don’t exactly loooove proofreading). Plus, some rules of grammar are so ingrained in our brains due to constant use and repetition that you just do them without thinking twice; I can use appositive phrases like nobody’s business, but if you ask me to explain the rules behind them I’d have to put my thinking cap on.

Ask a twelve-year old what an appositive phrase is, and you’ve got a whole new ballgame.

Which got me thinking: sure, my students are still learning grammar, but what about all of the poorly worded, grammatically butchered Facebook posts I see from adults? What about the misspellings on signs at the grocery store, and the incorrect terms used in commercials? Couldn’t adults use a grammar refresher too?

And so I’ve started this bi-weekly writing and grammar feature, Intensive Purposes. A pun on the misquoted phrase “for all intents and purposes”, Intensive Purposes tackles one grammar rule or English language tip — from proper punctuation to misused phrases — in an easy-to-understand mini-lesson. Language is fluid and constantly changing, and there certainly are exceptions to the rules, but I’m pretty sure when to use there/their/they’re isn’t going to be changing any time soon (watch, tomorrow I’ll wake up and the universe will declare me wrong).


First up: apostrophes.

There’s actually quite a bit to apostrophes, but rather than beat you over the head with 4,012 rules, I figured we’d take it one step at a time. Sure, apostrophes sound like easy, basic stuff, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen bloggers (and writers…and students) misuse them!

Apostrophes indicate possession. If someone owns something, or something belongs to someone, you use an apostrophe .The dog’s collar.

It doesn’t even have to be a physical item; it can be abstract, but it still belongs to someone. Jane’s idea.

The book’s pages. Batman’s cape.

If the ring belongs to a group of hobbits, it’s “The hobbits’ ring.” — the apostrophe comes after the word ‘hobbits’, already plural because you’ve got more than one of them. If the ring just belongs to Bilbo, it’s “The hobbit’s ring.” (If you’re Gollum and say “hobbitses”, that’s another story.)

Apostrophes never make something plural. Cat’s does not mean more than one cat. It means you’re going to talk about something that belongs to the cat, like the cat’s box. I know it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many times people get it wrong. We’ll move on to apostrophes, level 2 (how cool would grammar EXP be!?) soon, because names that end in an ‘s’ and last names, and things like decades and the like can get confusing, but make sure you master the basics first.

What grammar rules would you like to brush up on? Send your questions my way!

  • Oh this is excellent. I write all the time, but I could use some serious refreshers on grammar. I do hope you will go over what you do with the apostrophes at the end of words or names that end in s. Those ones always trip me up.

    • Names that end in -s can get crazy! I’ll definitely be including them in an apostrophes part two or three 🙂

  • Mia Moore

    Oh man, you know what I never know the answer to? If you’re quoting something and it needs punctuation immediately after, does it go in the quotes or not? I’ve always put it inside, but what if you are asking a question? Doesn’t that change the meaning of the quote?! So many grammar mysteries.

    These are terrible examples but hopefully it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about…
    And that, as they say, is “how the cookie crumbles.”
    Did you hear her say “Come over here”?

    What is the answer? We just don’t know!

    • That’s actually something I’ve struggled with, more in the line of quoting things for academic papers and parentheses, though the more I think about it, the more I get thrown off altogether. I’m adding this to my list – thanks!

  • Ooh I love this new column, Kristin!! I have a question for you about the apostrophes and the possessive S. In high school my english teacher always said us that if the name ends with an S, you won’t add the possessive S, but you’ll just add the apostrophe.

    For example: “Legolas’ bow” VS “Legolas’s bow”

    I always wrote it in the first way, following my teacher’s intructions, but I see the second way very very often on the internet. What is the correct form? Oh, I should say that english is not my mother tongue, as you may notice… 😉

    • I’m going to cover that very topic in an apostrophes pt. 2 or 3 soon! It’s something a lot of people have questions about – thanks for the idea! (English isn’t your first language!? I wouldn’t have known; you speak/type it so well!)

      • Eeek! You made my day. I’m italian at 100%, the reason why I started blogging in English was to improve my skills, since my University doesn’t provide a decent English course.

        I can’t wait to read apostrophes pt. 2!

  • I like the idea of this column! I’d love to learn a bit more about semicolons; I feel like I overuse them, but I’m not actually sure when I *shouldn’t* be using them!

    • Semicolons are a popular punctuation and one that people have a lot of questions about! I’ll be covering those for sure – they’re addictive 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Kay

    I am one of those people that does love proofreading, and yet I’m sure I still make typos of my own! Can’t wait to read more in this series! I am ALWAYS confused about when the heck to use an apostrophe in a name that ends in S! And semi colons. I use them, but I often second guess myself on if I’m actually using them properly, haha!

  • I am in love with this feature already.

  • Keep on teaching, teacher lady!!!

    I recently got a slow cooker and so joined a slow cooker FB group, which was called “Slow Cooker Saddo’s”. I would love to know what the Saddo owns there, because it’s probably not a grammar book.

    • Ahahaha xD I try not to judge grammar, but sometimes I do; it’s just who I am (even though I make mistakes with the rest of the world). I’m sure it’s a great group, but yes, grammar book was not involved in creating that group.

  • This is great! I’m a writer, but I’ve always hated grammar!! I love this series!

  • Oh yes!! Few things irritate me as much as apostrophe errors, or their/there/they’re errors, or the big horror error “could of”. It hurts my eyes seeing it. English isn’t my native language and I’m definitely not particularly good at it, but at least I know how to use apostrophes. Or, at least I know that they are not used to create plurals.

    • Could of! Nooooo! It pains me when students (and adults) use it or any of its spin-offs: should of, would of, etc.

  • This is fantastic! (And I love the play on intents and purposes.) My old place of employment was so guilty of saying things like “Todays draft’s” and really butchering simple rules.

    My friends would always come to me to edit their papers (like you, I was more focused on analysis than proofreading in college), so I’m excited to see how you tackle this for adults!

    • When businesses can’t even get simple things like “Todays draft’s” right, it kills me. Like, how did you get to this point and no one corrected you/you didn’t figure this out!? I know “English” or grammar isn’t everyone’s strength, but like, that’s basically literacy in my book.