Well, we'd probably spend a lot less time wondering whether it goes before the dang S or after. So let's take a quick minute to clear things up.
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What can you do with an apostrophe?
A whole mess of things! Let's get the easier ones out of the way first.
1. Omit letters. This could be in the form of a contraction, as when "can not" becomes "can't",
or a casual dropping of letters, as is often seen in dialect.
2. Transliterate non-English words or names. When writing certain other languages using the English alphabet, the apostrophe is sometimes used to divide syllables or letters to ensure correct pronunciation.
3. Omit numbers. This works just like omitting letters: the apostrophe is used to show where the numbers were dropped.
NOTE: Speaking of numbers, you will sometimes see letters (MFA's and PhD's), numbers (20's and 30's), and symbols (#'s and @'s) made plural with an apostrophe. Many sources, including the Chicago Manual of Style, would have you use the apostrophe only when there would otherwise be a chance of misreading the word. (For example, in the sentence, I's in that column are incomplete assignments, you might misread the beginning as Is in that... if you didn't have the apostrophe for clarity.)
4. Show possession.
This is the one that trips most of us up, so let's stand on it for a minute. Possession, in addition to being 9/10ths of the law, is used to show ownership. For example,
In this case, the feelings belong to the butt. 'Butt' is singular (there's only one), so we indicate possession with an apostrophe and an S.
Chuck Norris's fist.
The sun's fury.
But what do we do otherwise?
Here, the word is plural - the feelings belong to multiple butts - so we only add an apostrophe.
The Dallas Cowboys' record.
The players' salaries.
The fans' collective shame.
Ah, you say, but what about all those plural words that don't end in S? It's going to look mighty funky if you start talking about "the children' playground" and "women' fiction!"
Which is why, if we're speaking of "mice" and "men" or any other S-less plural word, you treat it exactly as you would if it were singular - with an apostrophe and an S.
The children's visit to the park.
The geese's sudden attack.
The cameramen's delight.
In conclusion, the cardinal rule for all this apostrophizing is that when showing possession, you never break up a word with an apostrophe. We wouldn't say Mr. Jame's class, the wolve's den, or the cat's heads - it's Mr. James's class, the wolves' den, and unless we're talking about a tragic medical oddity of a cat, the cats' heads.
And if you find yourself tempted to sprinkle apostrophes a little too liberally in your prose... well, just keep an eye out for Butch.
There's plenty more to say about apostrophes, but that will do for today. Tune in tomorrow for our next exciting adventure!
Purdue OWL: Apostrophe
Grammar Girl: Apostrophe Catastrophe, Part One and Part Two
Grammar Girl: Why Doesn't "Veterans Day" Have an Apostrophe?
Possessive Apostrophe Rules
Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!
1. Zucchini Muffin
2. Jimi Hendrix
5. Pete* and Pete
6. Beau* and Xena
7. Pete, Pete*, and Blu*
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