On my drive home today, I got stuck behind a truck owned by some business called Company Vac’s. Apparently, what was on offer is a cleaning service. (I don’t recall the specific name, but this isn’t a unique problem.) When I was able to restrain my fury at this schlep delaying traffic in the left lane, I spewed vitriol about the stupidity of the person who painted Vac’s on the truck without identifying what belonged to Vac, whoever he is.
The problem here was the incorrect use of the apostrophe. With a few exceptions (about which I am intolerant), this mark of punctuation does not indicate plurals. What does it signify? For the most part, only two things, contraction or possession.
First, consider contractions. As illustrated in the title of this article, apostrophes indicate when letters are being left out. Let’s is let us, and y’all is you all. (Note that the contraction there is not ya’ll, since no letters get left out of all.) Many get into trouble with it’s. This looks like a possessive, but it means it is.
Now for possession. We have to dispose of the possessive pronouns, his, its, yours, and so forth. Those do not use the apostrophe. But if I want to talk about a book that belongs to John, I use John’s. Isn’t (is not) that simple? What if James wants his own book? Then it would be James’s. The rule here is that ‘s gets added to any singular noun to indicate belonging. The s at the end of James is not a marker for plural. (We don’t have a multiplicity of Jame.) Some style manuals tell us that with names from the ancient world, Jesus, Achilles, etc., we don’t follow the rule, but that makes no sense. Grammatically, and perhaps theologically, we do not have more than one Jesus, so if it’s (it is) his, it’s (it is) Jesus’s. (There are boys aplenty named Joshua in English and Jesus in Spanish, but they have to achieve greatness on their own.) Achilles was his own man and warrior and deserves to be recognized in the singular. When talking about his shield, call it Achilles’s.
When more than one owns something, we get into more trouble, and I’m (I am) not referring to jealousy. Consider my students. They frequently make errors with apostrophes, so the errors are the students’. Since the word students is plural because of the s on the end, to mark possession, we just add an apostrophe. Confusion arises when the word is plural without an s. Men, for example. Belonging to a man or to men looks the same: man’s or men’s. Children’s toys may get lost in one child’s room. But that’s (that is) not too bad.
In summary, use an apostrophe when it marks letters left out. Use ‘s at the end of a singular noun or a plural noun that does not end in s to indicate possession. Attach an ‘ to the final s of a plural word for the same purpose. That’s (that is) it.
Well, almost. What if we want to talk about the previous decade? Some write 90’s, while others use 90s. (We do talk about the events of ’98, but that’s [that is] a case of leaving out some numbers.) In a city, one expects to find many automatic teller machines, so would that be ATM’s or ATMs? For the most part, I see no need to put an apostrophe there. There’s (there is) neither contraction nor possession, so use 90s and ATMs. In the limited situation in which we must discuss a letter–s, for example–I suppose that it’s (it is) acceptable to use an apostrophe. S’s might need something to show that we’re (we are) not talking about a doubled ess sound, but many cases of the particular letter.
May I hope that my dear readers’ writing will now demonstrate the correct usage of the apostrophe? We’ll (we shall) see.