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Back to basics: quick and easy ways to clear the grammar hurdles; Part 1: attacking the apostrophe.

Grammar errors can spoil good writing--but with a few quick and easy rules, you can master all these pesky problems.

In the writing people send us for editing and feedback, certain grammar blunders occur again and again, marring otherwise acceptable pieces. To remedy this problem, we have collected some quick and easy rules to make grammar gaffes a thing of the past. Our topics reflect the mistakes we have seen most often, but we invite you to send us any others you'd like explained, and we'll put them in a column. Just drop us an e-mail at


The apostrophe (') serves three main purposes: to show that something belongs or pertains to someone (the boy's baseball, the man's red hair), to make a contraction (they're in a hurry), and, rarely, to form some plurals (mind your p's and q's).

Next to the comma, the apostrophe is probably the most misused of punctuation marks. Consider that there is an Apostrophe Protection Society in England that exists purely to protect and correct the uses of this noble squiggle. And with good reason! The little tadpole with its head in the clouds can pack a powerful punch. It can change the entire meaning of a sentence, as here:

Apostrophe after the final "s":

My colleagues' annual reports are based on false premises.

Meaning: The annual reports prepared by some of my co-workers are totally misleading.

Apostrophe before the final "s":

My colleague's annual reports are based on false premises.

Meaning: The annual reports prepared by one of my co-workers are totally misleading.

No apostrophe, but a comma thrown in to give the sentence some sense:

My colleagues, annual reports are based on false premises.

Meaning: Listen, good friends and co-workers: I am here to tell you that all annual reports are totally misleading.

To avoid saying what you didn't mean, take control of your apostrophes. They are pretty reasonable, provided you follow their rules.


Begin with the root word, the single or plural noun to which you will add the apostrophe.

1. If the root word ends in any letter but s, add an apostrophe +s.

my son (root word)[right arrow]my son's books

the children (root word)[right arrow]the children's ice cream cones

Roger (root word)[right arrow]Roger's office

gentlemen (root word)[right arrow]a gentlemen's agreement

2. If the root word ends in s, just add an apostrophe.

Moses (root word)[right arrow]Moses' laws

the MacDonalds (root word)[right arrow]the MacDonalds' farm

the puppies (root word)[right arrow]the puppies' toys

Exception. (Well, you knew there would be an exception, didn't you? After all, this is English grammar.) If the root word ending in s is singular, with just one syllable, add an apostrophe + s.

James (root word)[right arrow]James's idea

my boss (root word)[right arrow]my boss's desk

The above rules govern all uses of the apostrophe to indicate possession, including the following two.

* Compound words--add the apostrophe (+ s if necessary) to the last word

my father-in-law's mustache

* Two or more people or groups possessing the object--add the apostrophe (+ s if necessary) to the last person or group.

Bill and Mary's invention

the lawyers and accountants' offices

Next time, more about the apostrophe and other grammar hurdles.


Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople for 20 years. Their latest book. The Short Road to Great Presentations (Wiley, 2003), is available in bookstores and from Their consulting firm, PERC Communications (telephone: 1 914 725 1024, e-mail, offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on-the-job communication skills. Visit their web site at

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Author:Reimold, Peter
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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