Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Have you ever wondered how to use apostrophes? Here's a quick primer, a la Black Lives Matter and Pride Month!
All Live’s Matter is wrong in more ways than one!
If you don't already know, here’s why “All Lives Matter” is wrong.
“Black Lives Matter" does not use an apostrophe. It doesn’t belong there, like military-grade weapons don’t belong in the police force.
Let’s dig into how to use apostrophes!
To indicate something belongs to you:
(Grammarians and English teachers usually say "possession" or "possessive," but those words sound so antebellum and patriarchal! The grammar world obviously needs a reckoning, too!)
These apostrophes are used to denote something that is yours:
That is Jack’s water bottle for the socially distanced Pride march.
We need to be teaching Oregon’s racist history in our schools.
If you’re white, never ask if you can touch a Black person’s hair. Here’s why.
Avoid using an apostrophe for these types of words—these things do not belong to you:
WRONG: Get your face mask’s here for the protest.
WRONG: Wishing all the drag queen’s a happy Pride!
It gets a bit more tricky with plurals.
For example, if four of the marchers are carrying a banner, it is the marchers’ banner.
“The marcher’s banner” would mean there is only one marcher holding a banner.
What if it’s a family named Johnson? Did you know that a Black man, former NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson, invented the super soaker in 1991? Lonnie Johnson's super soaker is his. Lonnie Johnson's family shares a house, so it is the Johnsons’ house.
Exception: “Its” is a "possessive" form, but you should never use an apostrophe in the possessive in this case.
Let’s tackle that tricky problem of it’s and its:
The easiest way to get this one right is to only use an apostrophe as a contraction: “it is” becomes “it’s.” For example:
It’s a perfect time to begin tackling unconscious bias in your company.
I’m praying for the day when it’s easier to be a Black trans woman.
Its tragic that Black people are disproportionately far more likely to be stopped, arrested, harmed, or killed by police.
The Louisville Police Department has still not arrested or charged it's officers who killed Breonna Taylor. (Wrong in so many ways...SAY HER NAME!)
As I mentioned above, “its” indicates when something belongs to “it,” and it breaks the rule I listed above.
The fallen confederate statue lost its nose.
The city needs to redirect more of its budget from the police to education and community investment.
We also use apostrophes when combining words.
Apostrophes are also used for contractions (for example, don’t, can’t, wouldn’t). I have rarely seen people make mistakes with these types of apostrophes, though.
Pitfalls to avoid:
Never add an apostrophe to a plural word unless the word is a possessive:
Wrong: Don’t forget your pride flag’s!
Correct: The pride flags’ ribbons are wrinkled.
Never use apostrophes with numbers—remember, plurals never have apostrophes:
Correct: Bea Arthur left $300,000 to an organization that houses homeless LGBT youth when she died in her 80s.
(Arthur was a longtime champion of women’s rights, the elderly, and Jewish communities, and later in life she took up the cause of LGBT youth homelessness.)
Wrong: Althea Gibson was in her 70’s when she died.
(Although Gibson was the first African-American to win a Grand Slam tennis title in 1956, after she suffered two cerebral hemorrhages and a stroke, her ongoing medical expenses depleted her financial resources, leaving her unable to afford her rent or medication. She reached out to multiple tennis organizations requesting help, but none responded. Her former doubles partner Angela Buxton raised nearly $1 million in donations from around the world.)
Correct: The Stonewall Riots happened in the late ‘60s.
(The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LBGTQ community in response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn and ongoing harassment by police. Stonewall is the most important moment leading up to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LBGTQIA rights.)
Wrong: In the late 1930’s, jazz great Josephine Baker, who was also bisexual, renounced her American citizenship to become French because she couldn’t stand the racism any longer.
(Baker was not only a jazz great, actor, and dancer, but she was also a civil rights activist and hero of the French resistance.)
Don't confuse who's and whose.
"Who’s” is a shortcut for “Who is,” as in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
“Whose” is another possessive, such as “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Don’t forget that plural rule we covered above when you make your address labels or sign your holiday cards.
The Obama family is never “the Obama’s.” They are “the Obamas,” unless we’re talking about something they own…in which case we would say “The Obamas’ legacy.”
Holidays are tricky—we use an apostrophe for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, but we do not use an apostrophe for “Veterans Day.” If in doubt, call on Google.
Whether you’re celebrating pride, posting about Black Lives Matter on social media, or writing your elected representatives, now you know how to use apostrophes.
What are your punctuation stumbles? Drop us a line so we can address them in our upcoming writing tips. If you found these helpful, share with your friends and colleagues!
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