Keeping Up with the Joneses

Apostrophes seem to give people a hard time. I’m not sure why. I have to restrain myself when I see (which is often) an incorrect use of apostrophes on restaurant signs and in menus. Why they are so common there, I’m not sure, but it’s a good thing for all writers to memorize these rules—and they’re not hard.

What is wrong with the sentences below?

• He was selling chocolates to the participant’s.
• The Milky Way’s were a better choice.
• Vast majority of people have TV’s .
• They were a well-known group in the 1960’s.

Answer: The apostrophe is incorrectly used in place of a plural. It should be participants, Ways, TVs, and 1960s.

There are two uses for the apostrophe—in shortened forms, indicating a verb added after the apostrophe (it’s, couldn’t) and in possessives (It’s George’s house).

What should we do when a possessive is also a plural?

• The participants’ job was to choose between two options.
• My sisters’ room (meaning more than one sister. If you only have one sister, it’s just sister’s.)
• My parents’ house ( but if you are speaking of only one parent, it would be “my parent’s house.”)

Here the participant is a plural and a possessive, so you place the apostrophe after the s. If the participant was singular, you would place it before the s.

Another big error I see is in pluralizing single names that end with s. Yes, it does look a bit funny, but these are correct:

• Robert Burns’s poetry
• Jesus’s sermons
• Bill Jones’s job
• The Joneses’ house (meaning a house belonging to more than one Jones—a couple or family, for example. Remember the expression : “Keeping up with the Joneses.” And because “Joneses” is plural, not singular, you just use the apostrophe, like “the Smiths’ house.”)
• Jess’s car
• James’s family but The Jameses (the whole family). And again, the Jameses’ house.

I hope this will help you stay out of trouble with the Grammar Joneses!

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One Comment

  1. In The Elements of Style by Strunk and White states there is an exception with ancient proper names:

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write, Charles’s friend Burns’s poems the witch’s malice. This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press. Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by the heel of Achilles the laws of Moses the temple of Isis

    Strunk, William (2010-04-11). The Elements of Style (Original Edition) (p. 3). BPN. Kindle Edition.

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