Top Tips for Using Apostrophes with Letters, Words, and Numbers
by Kathleen Watson
The apostrophe helps us form contractions (what’s new), shows us that something is missing (rock ‘n’ roll), and helps us create possessives and plurals.
These examples will help you make the right decision: to add or skip the apostrophe.
Let’s first look at using apostrophes with plurals of letters and words.
When you have a single letter (lowercase or capital) that you want to make plural, add an apostrophe:
- Mind your p’s and q’s.
- He reviewed the contract to be sure he had dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.
- The Oakland A’s play the Minnesota Twins on Saturday.
When you have multiple capital letters, do not add an apostrophe:
- She knew her ABCs by the time she started nursery school.
- Four VIPs joined Prince Charles in his private box at the opera.
- Someone vandalized all of the bank’s ATMs.
Exception: If you intend to show possession for the capital letters, add an apostrophe:
- The VIP’s wallet disappeared from her desk drawer.
- The ATM’s keypad wouldn’t work.
- NASA’s budget will be cut again next year.
When you have a word you want to make plural, generally do not add an apostrophe:
- He cluttered his presentation with too many ands.
- His life is full of regrets about should-haves.
- How many pleases does your child say in a day?
Exceptions: If making a word plural without an apostrophe might cause confusion for readers, add one:
Thank you’s and do’s and don’ts need apostrophes. Yous could be slang — think of Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky and yous guys — and dos could be confused with the Spanish word for two or for the ancient DOS computer operating system.
Using Apostrophes With Numbers
Now that we’ve covered how to use apostrophes with letters and words, let’s look at how to use them with numbers.
When you add an s to numbers to make them plural, do not add an apostrophe:
- Temperatures dropped into the low 20s last night.
- There were four 727s waiting on the tarmac.
- She said both size 9s were too loose.
When writing about years as decades, do not add an apostrophe:
- She writes regularly about music of the 1960s.
- He spent three years refurbishing a car from the 1940s.
- She found her 1980s cheerleading sweater in the attic.
However, when the year is specific and designates possession, add an apostrophe:
- During 1936’s Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field events.
- Funds raised this year surpassed 2015’s efforts.
- 1929’s stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression.
Other Number Issues
Avoid using numbers to begin a sentence except when the numbers express a year:
2015 was the best year we’ve had in a decade.
Either write out the number or rewrite the sentence:
Incorrect: 95 percent of my day is spent responding to emails.
Correct: Ninety-five percent of my day is spent responding to emails.
Correct: I spend 95 percent of my day responding to emails.
To summarize, do not use an apostrophe when you are making numbers plural (727s) or when referring to a decade (the 1970s).
But when you get specific about a particular year with a possessive construction, an apostrophe is appropriate: The Chicago White Sox were 2005’s World Series champions.
Bonus Tip: Ever wonder about the origin of the phrase Mind your p’s and q’s? One source claims the expression originated in British pubs as an abbreviation for mind your pints and quarts. Another source claims that it originated with printers who set headlines in movable type. Because the lower-case p and q are mirror images of each other, a reminder to watch your p’s and q’s meant using care to return the printing dies for those letters to their correct place after use.
I hope these tips save you time from having to stop to look up usage guidelines for apostrophes when your creative juices are flowing. Punctuation isn’t as much fun as developing characters and creating fictional twists and turns, but it is necessary to clearly convey your story.
Kathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.