Apostrophe abuse is common these days (there is an entire blog devoted to shaming the perpetrators of apostrophe offenses; see ApostropheAbuse.com).
The most frequent offenses include confusing possessive forms and contractions, though some people seem to toss apostrophes into words at random.
Here are some simple rules that will keep you from running afoul of the punctuation police.
To show possession with most singular words, add ‘s (this rule applies even to singular words that end in s):
John’s book, Jane’s car, Tim’s attitude, everybody’s things, somebody’s purse, the music’s tempo, the gas’s toxicity, Kris’s homework (some style guides don’t require an extra s after the apostrophe with proper names ending in s; this is an issue of preferred style rather than a universal rule)
To show possession with plural words that don’t end in s, just add ‘s as you would with singular words:
children’s toys, women’s bathroom
When a plural word already ends in s, just add an apostrophe after the s:
the Smiths’ home, the cats’ toys (assuming that multiple cats share the toys), the protesters’ signs
Note: When pluralizing proper names, add es to those that end in s; for example, the plural of Jones is Joneses (indicating a group of people who share the last name Jones); the possessive plural is Joneses’:
The Joneses were a family who lived next door.
The trees in the Joneses’ yard were decorated with beer cans on strings.
When two people own something together, only the second person requires an apostrophe:
Bill and Ted’s messy apartment, Jack and Jill’s unfortunate hill climbing excursion, Bert and Ernie’s ambiguous relationship
When some or all of what is possessed belongs to each of the individuals separately, both need apostrophes:
Bill’s and Ted’s perplexing hobbies, Jack’s and Jill’s injuries, Bert’s and Ernie’s romantic preferences
Don’t add apostrophes to pronouns such as his, hers, its, theirs, and whose (as in Whose dog ate my hat?).
Time and Money
‘s is often used when referring to time or money.
Ten year’s experience (ten years of experience)
A month’s time
Ten dollars’ worth of candy
An hour’s wait for the doctor
Note: An apostrophe is used in o’clock because this is actually a contraction; o’clock stands for of the clock.
When you’re combining two words, an apostrophe is used to bridge the gap:
- it is = it’s
- they are = they’re
- he is = he’s
- they have = they’ve
- who is = who’s
- had not = hadn’t
- she will = she’ll
- there is = there’s
- what is = what’s
A few contractions take irregular forms (for example: will not = won’t)
Numbers, Letters, and Abbreviations
Most sources recommend against using apostrophes with numbers, references to individual letters, or abbreviations:
1970s is correct (not 1970’s) and ABCs (not ABC’s) is preferred.
However, an apostrophe is used to indicate missing numbers in years, as in the ’70s, which is a shortened version of the 1970s.
A few sources say that using the apostrophe in plural numbers (as in 1970’s) is okay when writing for an American audience. However, most grammar experts object to the practice, so you’re less likely to be scolded or mocked by the punctuation police if you leave the apostrophes out of these plural numbers.
Apostrophes should be added to plurals of individual letters or numbers when they are needed to make the meaning clear, as in the following examples:
Don’t forget to dot your i’s.
One thousand is a number with three 0’s.
Abstract is a word with two a’s.
Another option is to enclose the letters or numbers in quotation marks or spell out numbers in these cases:
Don’t forget to dot your ‘i’s.
One thousand is a number with three zeros.
Abstract is a word with two ‘a’s.
Many people confuse its (the possessive form) and it’s (a contraction of it is or it has). Apostrophes are used correctly in the following sentences:
It’s a beautiful day. (It is a beautiful day.)
It’s been a long time since we saw her. (It has been a long time since we saw her.)
The roof lost some of its shingles in the storm. (Shingles belonging to the roof were lost.)
Another common mistake is confusing their (which indicates possession) with they’re (which is a contraction of they are):
They’re angry because they lost their place in line. (They are angry because they lost the place in line that belonged to them.)
Punctuation: Colon (:)
Colons have two common uses: introducing statements or quotations and introducing lists.
Colons with Quotations
A colon can be used to introduce a quotation (a comma is typically used for short quotations and a colon for longer ones):
Douglas Adams provides the following theory on the origins of the universe:
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
Colons with Lists
A colon can also be used to introduce a list when the introduction is a full sentence:
Jill wrote three children’s books: The Peripatetic Platypus, No Sporks for Spencer, and The Cockroach That Loved Marmalade.
Don’t use a colon when introducing a list with a sentence fragment:
Jordy’s favourite foods were haggis, hot dogs, and meatloaf. (Jordy’s favourite foods were is not a full sentence on its own, so no introductory punctuation is needed.)
If the words following the colon make up a full sentence, begin the first word with a capital letter. If they don’t make a complete sentence, begin with a lowercase letter (unless the sentence fragment starts with a proper name).
Egbert had three pet peeves: They were pigs wearing hats, novelty cigars made of bubblegum, and the laws of physics. (The material after the colon is a full sentence with a subject and a verb, so it starts with a capital letter.)
Egbert had three pet peeves: pigs wearing hats, novelty cigars made of bubblegum, and the laws of physics. (The words after the colon don’t make a full sentence, so they start with a lowercase letter.)
Colons with Quotation Marks
If using a colon with quotation marks, it goes outside the quotation marks (unless it’s part of a direct quote):
Miranda said that she had three “favourite thingamajiggers”: gizmos, gadgets, and doohickeys.
Miranda said, “I have three favourite thingamiggers: gizmos, doohickeys, and gadgets.”
Note: Leave only one space after a colon.
Many people are confused about where to put their commas. Here are eight rules that will help your commas end up in the right places.
1. Use commas to separate clauses (chunks) of sentences, especially asides (information that could go in parentheses) and clauses that begin with which:
John, who liked to juggle power tools, spent a lot of time in the hospital emergency ward.
Mel was happy with his career as a primal scream therapist, but his neighbors wished he would find another line of work.
Jeb decided to wear a clown suit to work, which was the cause of his firing.
Note: don’t use commas with that clauses:
It was wearing a clown suit to work that cost Jeb his job.
2. Commas are also used to separate actions or items in a series:
Norbert brought silly string, a squirt gun, and water balloons to the meeting.
Should you use a comma before and in a series or leave it out? This is a matter of personal preference. Either way is fine as long as you do it consistently. (Some style guides demand one approach or the other.)
3. Use commas before and after names in a conversation:
“Hello, Darth Vader.”
“Luke, I am your father.”
4. Add commas before and after quotations:
“We’ll go tomorrow,” said Ericka. “Good,” said Lorelei, “because I don’t want to miss the singing frog exhibit.”
One exception to this rule occurs when the quotation ends with a question mark (?) or an exclamation mark (!). In these cases, no comma is added.
“I can’t believe you stole my hamster!” said John.
A second exception occurs when a quote is introduced with that:
Leo Tolstoy said that “[a]ll great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
A third exception occurs when quotes are embedded in the sentence structure:
Jake drew the wrath of the grammar police when he said that he had “literally exploded with rage” after the poodle incident.
5. Use a comma after an introductory word or phrase to mark a pause:
Finally, we can get some pancakes.
However, she was not surprised that Melvin kept all the Milk Duds for himself.
While Norton read Horton Hears a Who, Nina crept into his office and stole all his pencils.
6. Use commas before and after place names when both the city or town and province/state/country are provided:
Nettie grew up in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, and moved to Spuzzum, British Columbia, when she was twenty-three years old.
7. Use commas with dates when the month, day, and year are all given:
Wilbur got married on January 13, 2012, and was divorced on May 6, 2013.
Note: If the day or year is not provided in a date, don’t add commas:
Caleb started training for the upcoming Extreme Ironing Championships in January 2012.
Beverly won her first hot dog eating contest on January 22.
8. Use commas with adjectives if you could add and between them:
Mr. Bellweather was a happy, friendly monkey. (Here, a comma is used because you could add and between happy and friendly and the sentence would still make sense.)
Avery shocked everyone at the office by showing up for the meeting in red silk pajamas. (No comma is needed here because you wouldn’t say a red and silk pajamas. Red is actually describing the silk.)
Exclamation Mark (!)
Exclamation marks are used when there is a need for emphasis or surprise, or to indicate shouting:
I can’t believe you threw lemon tarts at the queen!
Your noodle and chocolate chip casserole is amazing!
When he opened the door, he found that Marlene’s SUV was filled with alligators!
Exclamation Marks in Quotations
If the emphasis is part of a quotation, put the exclamation mark inside the quotation marks. However, if the whole sentence needs to be emphasized, put the exclamation mark outside the quotation marks:
“I want a new monkey!” he shouted.
I can’t believe he told the president to “go take a long walk on a short pier”!
- Don’t add periods or commas after exclamation marks.
- Don’t use multiple exclamation marks in a row in formal writing.
Hyphens and Dashes (-) (–)
Hyphens in Descriptions
Use hyphens for two-word descriptions that come before nouns (a good-natured wildebeest, an ill-tempered aardvark ).
Use hyphens with a series of descriptors that all refer to a single noun:
Waldo had both short- and long-term plans for world domination.
The judges provided the first-, second-, and third-order results of the waffle tossing competition.
Don’t use a hyphen with very, most, least, or less (as in a very large hippopotamus, the least accomplished professional, the most impressive fruit hat, a less appealing hot dog) or words that end in –ly (a totally new type of zombie, a fully destroyed dollhouse).
Also, if you could use either descriptive word on its own, don’t use the hyphen (a smart [and] young mime, a sweet [and] old platypus)
Hyphens with Prefixes and Suffixes
Use hyphens with prefixes such as ex (ex-leader), with numbers (pre-1980), and with abbreviations (pre-U.S. Civil War).
Hyphens are also typically recommended when adding prefixes or suffixes would create double vowels (anti-agrarian, ultra-ambitious) or double consonants (non-negotiable, shell-like). However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule. For example, the prefixes pre and re don’t require hyphens according to the somewhat arbitrary laws of punctuation (reenter, preempt). Additional prefixes that don’t require hyphens include:
- after (aftereffect)
- anti (antiestablishment)
- bi (biannual)
- co (coauthor)
- extra (extrasensory, extracurricular)
- inter (interpersonal)
- micro (micromanage)
- mini (miniseries)
- multi (multilingual)
- mid (midsentence)
- non (nonprofit)
- socio (socioeconomic)
- over (overprotective)
- under (underrepresented)
- post (postwar)
- pro (promarriage)
- semi (semistructured)
- sub (subpar, subcontract)
- super (supercharge, superannuated)
- ultra (ultramarathon, ultrachic, ultracareful)
Suffixes that don’t require hyphens include ache (toothache), less (formless), like (catlike, wavelike), and wide (citywide).
Some sources say that the rule about splitting up two vowels overrides the general rules for hyphen use and recommend adding hyphens to words such as anti-establishment, co-occur, and re-enter. When in doubt, go with personal preference or whatever style guide you’re working with and be consistent.
Also, use a hyphen in cases where adding a prefix without it would change the intended meaning (for example, re-form vs. reform, re-cover vs. recover, re-creation vs. recreation, re-petition vs. repetition, re-sent vs. resent, and un-ionized vs. unionized).
Hyphens for Family Members
Use hyphens with ex, in-law, and great (ex-wife, mother-in-law, great-uncle).
Don’t use hyphens with step, half, and grand (stepfather, half sister, grandmother).
Hyphens in Fractions
Hyphens are typically used in fractions such as four-fifths. However, there are no simple rules for half; in some words it is added without a space or hyphen (halfway); for others, a space is added (half brother) or hyphens are used (half-hour).
Hyphens for Breaking Words in Two
Splitting words should be avoided whenever possible. If there is no way to avoid it, break the word between syllables and into roughly equal parts if possible, and add a hyphen to show the spot where the word breaks. For example, if you have to break the word heartbeat, break it at heart- and continue with beat on the next line.
The dash (often referred to as the em dash) is used to mark information that is provided as an aside (information that could also be placed in parentheses) or an interruption, though the dash may be used to emphasize information as well.
He went to the store — with my money — to buy Popsicles for his elephant.
I want everyone to write an essay on — Jane, stop eating paste.
Whether you choose to put spaces around the dash is a matter of personal preference (many sources recommend using spaces for better readability). Whatever you choose to do, do it consistently.
Note: Most word processing programs will create a dash if you type two hyphens in a row.
Parentheses are used for asides or interruptions (to tuck additional information or explanation into or between sentences):
All of Wendell’s rubber chickens (which he had stolen from various joke shops) were lined up on the windowsill.
Snorg Ephelius Rondelblot the Fourth (known to his friends as Tommy) liked to hide in large mailboxes and scare passersby.
Archibald (as legend has it) was the inventor of the exploding watermelon.
If the aside occurs at the end of a sentence, put punctuation on the outside of the parentheses (unless both the aside and the material outside the parentheses are full sentences, in which case the period, question mark, or exclamation mark goes inside the closing parentheses):
Veronica often had nightmares about broccoli (though she occasionally dreamed about asparagus as well).
Veronica often had nightmares about broccoli. (Betty seldom dreamed of vegetables.)
When an aside that occurs within a sentence contains a question or exclamation, the appropriate punctuation should be added inside the parentheses.
Timothy threw his bongo drums (the ones I gave him for Christmas!) at Dottie’s wedding cake.
Everyone knows that you typically use a period at the end of a sentence, but there are times when the period is not needed. Don’t add a period:
- When a sentence ends with an abbreviation such as U.S. that contains a period
- After question marks (?) and exclamation marks (!)
- After ellipses (. . .) that are used to indicate a thought trailing off
- After list items that are not full sentences (unless working with a style guide that requests them)
Periods with Other Punctuation
The following rules govern the use of periods with other types of punctuation:
- If writing for North American readers, place periods inside quotation marks: Bertha said, “my accordion was run over by a train.” (In the UK, placement of other punctuation with quotation marks is more complex. See the Oxford Guide to Style’s for more information.)
- If using footnotes, add the numbers after the periods: Her theory was supported by research linking storm frequency to picnic plans.1
- If using in-text citations, add the punctuation after the reference in parentheses: Research indicates that cats have no interest in solving complex algebraic equations (Squigglepuss & Knickerbocker, 2008).
- When adding parenthetical phrases:
- Don’t add periods after parenthetical sentences or phrases in the middles of sentences: A monkey in a top hat (although he looks quite dapper) is still a monkey.
- When a parenthetical phrase occurs at the end of the sentence, put the period outside the parentheses: A monkey in a top hat is still a monkey (although he looks quite dapper).
- If a full sentence is placed in parentheses after a full sentence outside the parentheses, place a period inside the parentheses: A monkey in a top hat is still a monkey. (However, he looks quite dapper.)
Question Mark (?)
Most people know that question marks are added at the end of simple questions, but there are issues that often cause question mark confusion.
A Series of Questions
There are two options for a question series. You can either add one question mark at the end and separate the questions with commas or add a question mark after each item:
Should he take the pineapple, the watermelon, the water buffalo?
Should he take the pineapple? The watermelon? The water buffalo?
A Question at the End of a Sentence
When a question comes at the end of a sentence, you can either use a comma or a colon to introduce it. The question mark still goes at the end:
He asked himself, what should I do with all these hedgehogs?
He asked himself one question: What should I do with all these hedgehogs?
A Question Acting as a Statement
The following are indirect questions, so they are punctuated like statements (with a period rather than a question mark at the end):
I wondered why he wouldn’t introduce us to his imaginary friend.
He asked why she had dressed her potbellied pig in a pink frilly robe.
A Statement That Is Actually a Question
The same sentence can be a statement or a question depending on the punctuation at the end:
Jim’s imaginary friend told him that I have a dancing gerbil. (I have a dancing gerbil and Jim’s imaginary friend informed him of this fact.)
Jim’s imaginary friend told him that I have a dancing gerbil? (I’m asking if Jim’s imaginary friend told him that I have a dancing gerbil.)
Questions in Quotations
Place the question mark inside the quotation marks if the speaker is asking the question and outside if the whole sentence is a question:
“Where are all my sporks?” asked Orlando.
Orlando asked, “Where are all my sporks?”
Did Orlando just say, “My sporks are missing”?
Note: Never add commas or periods before or after question marks. (You’ll notice in the sentences above, when Orlando asked comes first, there is a comma before the question, but there is no comma after the question mark or quotation marks when asked Orlando comes at the end of the sentence).
Quotation Marks (“)
Quotation Marks with Other Punctuation
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the use of other punctuation with quotation marks. Here are a few simple rules.
When writing for a North American audience, put periods and commas inside quotation marks:
“My gerbil’s name is Samuel Beckingworth the Fourth.”
“My gerbil has an illustrious pedigree,” said Wilmer.
In the UK, the situation is more complex. Single quotation marks are typically used, and punctuation may be placed inside or outside quotation marks depending on the situation. See the Oxford Guide to Style for more information.
When combining quotation marks with question marks, placement depends on whether the quotation is a question on its own or just part of the question:
“Why is that horse wearing a tiara?” (Here, the question mark goes inside the closing quotation marks because the entire quotation is a question.)
Did Mel just say, “that horse is wearing a tiara”? (Here, the entire sentence is a question, and the quotation is just part of it, so the question mark goes outside the closing quotation marks).
The same rules apply for exclamation marks:
“Get back here and bring that wombat with you!” she shouted
He said, “I have a doomsday device and I’m not afraid to use it,” then squirted maple syrup all over his teacher!
The rule also applies to asides in parentheses:
“That movie was boring (and so was my date),” said Harry.
According to Harry, the movie was boring (and he said his date was “even more boring”).
Quotations within Quotations
When doubling up on quotations, use single quotation marks for the quotation within a quotation when writing for a North American audience (in the UK, single quotation marks are used for regular quotations, so the situation is reversed and doubles are used for quotations within quotations):
“I don’t know what’s wrong with John,” said Marla. “He just shouted, ‘I’m leaving and taking all the spoons with me,’ then stormed out, his pockets bristling with spoons.“
Scare Quotes (Also Known as Sneer Quotes)
Sometimes quotation marks are used to indicate that the words are someone else’s and that the author not only doesn’t agree with them but is actually sneering at their use:
Lydia’s “art” consisted of three stacks of pork chops covered in glitter.
Quotation Marks with Footnotes
When adding footnotes to quotations, put the number after all the punctuation, including the quotation marks:
Recent research indicates that “Rudwick’s clown car hypothesis is not valid.”1
Quotation Marks Around Titles
Use quotation marks for articles, essays, poems, short stories, works of art and sculpture, TV series, and song titles:
His painting, “Irritated Cow Descending a Staircase,” was purchased for $6 million.
Although some publications use different rules, most use italics for the titles of books, magazines, newspapers, movies, plays, musicals, operas, and ballets:
Roger’s newest book, The Mighty Hamsters of Madagascar, was published in 2013.
Classical music symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and others can just be capitalized with no quotation marks or special type:
Vera’s newest piece, Symphony Mediocrita, was played for an audience of several.
Many people use quotation marks for emphasis; this is wrong. If you want to emphasize a word, use italics, bold type, or a different colour.
Quotation Marks for Talking About Words
Quotation marks can also be used when talking about a particular word or phrase. Single quotation marks are typically used for this purpose, though doubles are sometimes used in North America.
The word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ has 12 syllables.
The semicolon is a misunderstood bit of punctuation that many people avoid using, but it has two important roles: tying together connected sentences and acting as a super comma.
Tying Two Sentences Together with a Semicolon
Use a semicolon if:
- you have two clauses that contain related or contrasting ideas,
- each could each be a full sentence on its own, and
- there is no connecting word between them (connecting words include and, but, nor, yet, or, so, and for):
Some people preferred hamsters; Mabel was a gerbil person. (A semicolon is used here because the two ideas are related but each is a full sentence on its own.)
Some people preferred hamsters, but Mabel was a gerbil person. (A semicolon is not used here because the two clauses are connected with but.)
Using a Semicolon as a Super Comma
Semicolons are used for item series when individual item descriptions already contain commas:
She packed all of her clothing except for the blue dress, the red shoes, and the purple socks; a few of her favourite knick-knacks; and all of the food in the cupboard, including Chester’s Peanut Butter Panda Puffs cereal.
- American Psychological Association. (2011). “Punctuating Around Quotation Marks.” Blog.APAStyle.org.
- Brians, P. (n.d.). Common Errors in English Language.
- Capital Community College Foundation. (n.d.). “Quotation Marks” and “Commas.” Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu.
- Fogarty, M. (2010). Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips.
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- OWL at Purdue. (2013). “How to Use Quotation Marks” and “Extended Rules for Using Commas.” The Writing Lab & the OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. OWL.English.Purdue.edu.
- Strauss, J. (2013). Grammarbook.com.
- The Guardian. (2013). “‘The British style’? ‘The American way?’ They are not so different.” TheGuardian.com.
- Trask, L. (1997). Guide to Punctuation. University of Sussex.