Valentine's Day paragraph breaks brought to you by screenshots I took from a Buzzfeed page the other day; they don’t link to anything because, honestly, you'd just get distracted.
A. Specific Person For Whom This is Written, But Likely Also Others: you should know that if you stop using apostrophes entirely, except when forming contractions, you’ll be correct more often than you are now, sprinkling them in whenever it takes your fancy or you’re worried you aren’t being fancy enough.
I used three in the sentence above. They were for contractions: two words squeezed into one. This just requires understanding how our speaking habits translate into written ones. You will = you’ll, you are = you’re, are not = aren’t. The apostrophe takes the place of the letters that are removed when the squeezing takes place.
Two contractions people tend to get wrong more commonly since the internet came along are would’ve and could’ve. If you read those aloud, you hear the problem from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t read or write much, or at least didn’t until the driving need emerged to share an uninformed and/or emotionally-wrought opinion on every gotdamned thing in existence. (More on that, again, another time, perhaps after drinks.) So anyway, those stand for would have and could have, not would of and could of, which are meaningless phrases.
B. The other apostrophe uses are strictly for possessives, and they are trickier, but wholly logical, if you just think it over carefully. First, assume that if you are adding s or es to suggest more than one item, you do not also need an apostrophe. Plural does not mean “possessive.” It just means more than one. There are some slight exceptions to this, but you won’t use them very often. Hang tight and I will explain.
Possessive means ownership, plural means more than one. Apostrophes are for ownership. You might need a mnemonic device to help with that. I’m not the best at those, but possessive has an o, as does apostrophe. Plural contains no o, so it doesn’t have an apostrophe (nearly always.) Um, an apostrophe is a trophy, and you can’t possess a trophy without an O. Maybe that will work for you.
Here are some examples.
“I bought some sweet pajamas with cats on them.” Pajamas, of course, refer to two pieces of sleepwear. The cats are not actual cats, just images of some.
“These cats pajamas are the cat’s pajamas.” These pajamas have multiple cats on them. They are so cool, it’s like if a cat possessed them. I have no idea why, but it is a fun old expression.
Bob’s bed: a bed which belongs to Bob. Bob’s friends are Carol, Ted and Alice. He possesses more than one of them.
Bobs I have known: a list of Roberts, including my brother, my uncle, Bob Crane, and the lead singer of The Cure, the best band in the world except for maybe Earth, Wind & Fire.
—Uncle Bob’s unlabeled jar of powdered “creamer” that he brought with him everywhere he went back in the 70s: a plastic jar he possessed which contained mysterious off-white powder for his coffee.
—Bob Crane of Hogan’s Heroes: eponymous member of the funny heroic group portrayed on TV when we were little. Incidentally, Hogan’s first name (the name he possessed) was Robert.
As to hers, well, do you ever add an apostrophe to his? Of course not. So you never would with hers, either, unless Her is the last name of someone owning something you wish to mention. But I think that’s generally spelled Herr. So you might see Herr’s Fine Meats or some such thing, suggesting the meats possessed by Herr.
C. Now, Specific Person, where you get hung up is in thinking that words already ending in S are more complicated than they actually are. First, again, if it’s just friends or pajamas or Roberts, no apostrophe.** (Note: one of the rules I’m about to cover is slightly different in British English. Sorry, if that’s you.)
The Brown Hotel in Louisville is famous for Hot Browns, a plain name for a fairly plain food. No need for apostrophe there.
The Browns ran this hotel before we were born. Their name was Brown and there were more than one of them.
White’s Club in London was frequented by elite male members of society. It was started by one man called White; he possessed the club, at least initially.
In the possessive instance, no preceding “The” was needed; that might be a clue for you. If you said “The Whites” you’d be talking about two or more people named White, not about something one of them owned.
What if someone’s last name ends in S? Let’s use Don Simmons as our example. First, leave his name alone; don’t go sticking an apostrophe before the S; that makes his name Simmon, which is rude of you to do. Next, if you are talking about his lack of soul, you might write it either, “Don Simmons has no soul,” or “Don Simmons’ soul is missing.”
In the sentence above, I used soul as an object and then as a subject. When someone possesses a subject, they usually have an apostrophe attached to their name. And if their name ends in S, the apostrophe follows it. If their name does not end in S, you’ll add one after the apostrophe.
Let’s pause so you can think that over. Possessive apostrophes are for ownership of subjects. Add an S to the name if one isn’t present, leave the person’s name alone if it already has one, and just stick that apostrophe on the end.
Do you understand the difference between these two sentences?
Over there is the Simmons house.
This is the Simmons’ house.
The first one is a little old-fashioned, but we still use it sometimes. We’re naming the house for the people who live there. The second sentence is like, “Yes, this is where we turn in, the Simmons own this place.” Never add an apostrophe to their name unless you are referring to a subject they possess (it can be a conditional subject, like their collective anger or something,) even if you are talking about more than one Simmons.
Don’s office is upstairs.
Simmons’ office is upstairs.
Did you see Don Simmons’ gloriously soulless performance of that old Carpenters tune at Karaoke night? It was once Richard Carpenter’s favorite composition.
Oh, the Carpenters. Their name is just Carpenter. If one of them wrote the song, it was Carpenter’s song. If both of them did, it was the Carpenters’ song.
A few more instances:
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
It’s a Girl’s World
The Boys Are Back in Town
A Boy’s Life
The Kids Are All Right
One Kid’s Mission To Travel the Universe
The Kids’ Choir
The Children’s Choir (S added because children was already a plural term.)
**It’s in the starred sentence stood for “it is.” At no other time do you ever use an apostrophe with its, unless you're referring to Cousin It’s hair; the hair possessed by Cousin It. Generally, things can’t possess nouns, only people can.