Apostrophes can be bewildering; they have caused many arguments, and even seasoned writers have an occasional wrestling match with them. When used properly, the apostrophe adds clarity to writing, but improper use can cause confusion.

Before an explanation of when to use apostrophes, it is necessary to discuss plural nouns. With the exception of words that do not change form–such as “moose”, “shrimp”, or “geese”–words that indicate multiple objects require nothing more than an s. “Pickles”, “onions”, and “American and Cheddar cheeses” need only an s when plural, otherwise, writing would be riddled with apostrophes.

In the English language, apostrophes have two major uses: possession and contractions. Of the two, the more abused are the possessive apostrophes. One apostrophe after the subject conveys ownership: “Bill’s cheeseburger”. Multiple owners of that cheeseburger changes where the apostrophe is placed–it is moved to the outside to call attention to the multiple subjects: the “apostrophes after s” rule. “The kids’ cheeseburgers” tells the reader that there are lots of kids, and they all have burgers.

Another common misuse of possessive apostrophes occurs in sentences that refer to a series of years. Years are incapable of owning anything; according to apostrophes rules, an apostrophe is not used.

Possessive Apostrophes Examples:
Plural: “The chickens were in their nests.” Neither noun requires a possessive apostrophe.
Possessive: “The chicken’s nest was plundered by a fox.” This apostrophe indicates ownership of the nest.
Possessive: “The chickens’ nests were full of eggs.” Many chickens own these nests, so the apostrophe moves to the outside.
Years Plural: “In the 1980s, egg production rose sharply.” The 1980s don’t own the eggs, and they don’t own CD collections, either.

The easiest of the apostrophes rules deals with the combination of words, or “contractions”. “Do not” becomes “don’t”, “was not” becomes “wasn’t”, “did not” is “didn’t”, and so forth. Rather than gluing the two words together, the apostrophe is a sort of placeholder for any missing letters.

Contraction Apostrophes Examples:
Right: “The chicken didn’t want to eat the cheeseburger.” “Not” lost its “o” and gained an apostrophe.
Wrong: “The fox was’nt thinking about cheeseburgers, it wanted those eggs.” The apostrophe should be where the “o” was.

To further illustrate when to use apostrophes, here are some examples with all the apostrophe types and plenty of plurals. Keep an eye out for those dreaded “apostrophes after s”.

A Few Last Apostrophes Examples:
“The building manager’s ladders were stacked against the wall, but they’ve all fallen over.”
“In the water, trapped air in geese’s feathers keep them buoyant and warm.”
“All five were gone, but I couldn’t be sure the squirrels’ raid on the bird feeder was over.”
“Women’s hats in the 1920s had many styles, and a woman’s choice in hats was quite personal.”
“The picnic tables were set with the chef’s best dishes; the ants’ scouting party had discovered a goldmine.”