A good proofreader will always check for apostrophe errors. And, as a proofreader, you should know the basics of how this punctuation mark works already. However, some apostrophe errors are easier to miss! Five easy-to-miss errors to look out for include:
- Exceptions to the rules about possessives and words that end in “s.”
- Certain proper nouns that omit a possessive apostrophe.
- The difference between individual and joint possession.
- How apostrophes can be used to mark unusual plurals.
- Awkward possessives that could be rephrased for clarity.
For more information on each of these errors, read on below.
1. Exceptions to the Rules for Possessives and Words Ending in “S”
In general, singular nouns ending in “s” are followed by an apostrophe and a second “s”:
The circus’s juggler is internationally renowned.
Many of Dickens’s books have been adapted into films.
Regular plural nouns, meanwhile, omit the second “s” after the apostrophe:
The dogs always steal the cats’ food.
Nice and simple! However, there are two key exceptions to this rule.
One is singular nouns with a plural form. For instance:
Many scholars criticize the United States’ legal system.
Politics’ true relevance in modern society is unclear.
Here, for example, “the United States” refers to a single country. And “politics” can be singular or plural, but here we’re using it singularly (i.e., to refer to the field of politics as a whole). However, since both are plural forms, we indicate possession with just an apostrophe.
The other exception is “for … sake” expressions with a singular noun that ends in “s”:
For goodness’ sake, don’t put an apostrophe there!
Keep an eye out for this phrase, and phrases like this, when proofreading.
Bonus Tip: Style Guide Variations
We should briefly note that the guidelines above reflect common usage and the recommendations of many style guides (e.g., they are in line with Chicago style). But some style guides will take a slightly different approach to the one set out above.
For example, AP style recommends omitting the “s” for all “for … sake” expressions featuring a word that ends in an “s” sound, not just words that end in the letter “s”:
For appearance’ sake, please brush your hair.
This is to avoid the clash of “s” sounds at the end of the noun and the start of “sake.”
In addition, some style guides recommend using only an apostrophe to indicate possession for all words ending in “s,” even singular nouns (e.g., the circus’ juggler). Others suggest using only an apostrophe for proper nouns ending in “s” (e.g., AP style again).
Due to this variation, it is wise to check your client’s style guide for advice on possessive apostrophes when proofreading, especially in cases like those discussed above.
2. Proper Nouns That Omit the Apostrophe
Unfortunately, there is little rhyme or reason to this. Some have apostrophes, some don’t. Occasionally you will even encounter places with the same name, one of which uses an apostrophe while the other does not (e.g., Queen’s Park, London; Queens Park, Sydney).
It is thus important to check whether proper names like these require an apostrophe if you are unsure. You can then either make a correction or leave a comment for your client.
3. Individual Possession vs. Joint Possession
It is easy to miss misleading or ambiguous apostrophes when dealing with the issue of individual and joint possession. Look at the following sentence:
Bob and Carol’s daughters are going to the party.
From this we can infer that Bob and Carol have more than one daughter together, and that these daughters are attending a party. Now look at this:
Bob’s and Carol’s daughters are going to the party.
By contrast, this suggests that both Bob and Carol have daughters separately. You can see here how the use of apostrophes can significantly change the meaning of a sentence.
If you encounter a situation in which it is unclear whether your client intends individual or joint ownership, then, leave a comment for them noting the issue.
4. Unusual Plurals
Adding an apostrophe in a plural is an error most proofreaders will have seen (e.g., CD’s instead of CDs, or 1960’s instead of 1960s). However, sometimes using apostrophes to form plurals is fine! Most notably, they are useful for plurals of lowercase letters:
Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s!
Here, for example, the apostrophes help us quickly see that these are plurals of lowercase letters. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to tell the plural i’s from the verb is.
- If your client is using a specific style guide, check it for advice on forming plurals.
- Think about whether the apostrophe is necessary for clarity and if there might be a better way of forming a plural (e.g., using capital letters rather than lowercase ones).
This will ensure you don’t accidentally “correct” a legitimate plural form or reduce the clarity of text. In most situations, though, plurals formed with an apostrophe will need correcting.
5. Awkward Possessives
Finally, you may come across situations where a pile-up of possessives makes a sentence clumsy or awkward to read. Take the following example:
Sandra’s next-door neighbor’s house’s door is red.
This could be changed in several ways to avoid the overuse of apostrophes. For instance:
The house next door to Sandra’s has a red door.
Now, we only have a single possessive, making the sentence much clearer.
If your brief does not allow for substantial edits like the one above, moreover, you can still leave a comment noting the issue and suggesting a change that will address it.
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