Apostrophes are notorious for arousing the ire of grammar fundamentalists. Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame was driven so mad by the advertisements for Two Weeks Notice that she posted her own apostrophes on posters to make it Two Weeks’ Notice. (I personally disagree that an apostrophe is necessary there, but I’ll address that later once I have a chance to research it.) While no one knows exactly where prescriptivists such fervent rage from, nor how they manage to contain so much rage without the anger ripping their bodies to shreds, they do have some excuse for being so uppity about apostrophes. The apostrophe is misused extensively; more so, perhaps, than any other punctuation mark. For example, there’s the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, where one uses ‘s to pluralize a noun (e.g., cucumber’s are on sale). Another common mistake is forming possessives of plural nouns that don’t end in s by adding s’ (e.g., the mens’ room is on the left). And of course there’s all the confusion about your/you’re and their/there/they’re. Such problems are railed upon at length on the Internet, spawning photo galleries heaped upon photo galleries of awful apostrophal miscues, and all of these mistakes are truly mistakes.

Unfortunately, not everything about apostrophe usage is so cut-and-dried. Take, for instance, the case of dreamy Prince William. He is the son of Prince Charles. But does that make him Prince Charles’ son or Prince Charles’s son? Now let’s say that at some point Prince William pulls an Edward VIII and leaves behind the royal life for the woman he loves. Piecing together a living in this hardscrabble world, he learns to fix appliances and opens a TV repair store. What does his banner read? TVs fixed while you wait? Or TV’s fixed while you wait? Or T.V.’s? Or T.V.s? Regrettably, poor Prince William will be criticized regardless of his choice, as various sources claim that each of these possibilities is the one, true, and correct choice.

So over the next few days, I’m going to look at various situations where an apostrophe is called for and try to explain what I think is the best course of action in each case, and why. Some of it will be prescriptive (with justifications) and some of it will be a defense against other people’s (not peoples’) misguided prescriptions. Hopefully it’ll help. In the meantime, let me know if there’s any point of apostrophe usage you’d like to know about (or if there’s anything you think you know that might not be so).

The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

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