Above the Law

What are the most common misuses of apostrophes?

The apostrophe does three things. Its first two uses are straightforward:

• To indicate a possessive {the plaintiff’s brief}.
• To mark the omission of one or more characters, especially in a contraction, as with can’t for cannot, or ’99 for 1999.

The third use is a little tricky because it involves an exception to a general rule (that you don’t use an apostrophe to form a plural, as discussed below):

• To form the plural of lowercase letters {dot your i’s}, capital letters when necessary to prevent a miscue {all A’s on the report}, or abbreviations with periods {a room full of J.D.’s}. Sometimes an apostrophe forms the plural of a number, initialism, or acronym without periods, but the trend — and my recommendation — is to drop the apostrophe in those cases {1900s (not 1900′s)} {SUVs (not SUV’s)}.

Sloppiness with apostrophes permeates both legal and nonlegal writing. They’re routinely used where they shouldn’t be and omitted where they should appear. If you want to avoid being labeled a careless writer (much less illiterate), follow these two rules.

1. Don’t use an apostrophe to form a plural (except as discussed above).

Not this: The Harrison’s canceled the meeting with a tax lawyer.
But this: The Harrisons canceled the meeting with a tax lawyer.

Not this: Give the potential buyer’s a chance to counteroffer.
But this: Give the potential buyers a chance to counteroffer.

2. Don’t drop necessary apostrophes.

Not this: Our office is on the buildings top floor.
But this: Our office is on the building’s top floor.

Not this: The fugitive fled to the Joneses house, not the Smiths.
But this: The fugitive fled to the Joneses’ house, not the Smiths’.

Hint: You may need to brush up on the proper way to form possessives to become proficient with the second rule. For example, note that contrary to the popular myth, grammarians have always accepted possessives for inanimate objects {the table’s surface}. Possessives don’t always denote ownership.

Then there’s the tricky possessive for it: the apostrophe in it’s denotes a contraction (omission of the second i in it is) — so the possessive is its {a dog and its fleas}.

As for apostrophes generally, the future doesn’t look bright, especially in British English. In the English town of Devon, the district council wants to ban apostrophes from street signs to avoid confusion, presumably leaving people on Beck’s Square and St. George’s Well in a bind. That’s nothing new: over a century ago, George Bernard Shaw, a spelling reformer, railed that “there is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.” Fortunately, he’s won few converts in the New World.

Sources:
Garner’s Modern American Usage 674-75 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 159-60 (2001).
Garner, HBR Guide to Better Business Writing 155-56 (2012).
The Chicago Manual of Style 342 (16th ed. 2010).

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.