Avoid apostrophe anguish

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Apostrophes causing confusion?

Time to grasp the nettle! I’ve been putting off this post for some time, but now it’s time to have a look at those fiddly little things that cause everyone so much pain – apostrophes. Historically, apostrophes have been around since the sixteenth century. They were first used to show that one or more letters had been left out; over the following couple of hundred years the apostrophe ʼs came into use to denote possession. The current trend with names and titles is to drop the apostrophe, but there is no hard and fast rule, so you can have Sainsbury’s and Macdonald’s with an apostrophe but in contrast Barclays and Lloyds banks without. With the increasing dominance of the online world I can see this trend continuing.

Two basic uses

There are two situations that call for an apostrophe: possession (indicating ownership of something) and contractions (showing that letters have missed out). Of course, nothing in life and grammar is ever simple, so there are quirks and exceptions. The basic rule to indicate possession is to add an apostrophe s to the end of the noun: the dog’s bone; the cat’s basket. Think of the apostrophe s as standing for ‘of’, so if you can say the bone of the dog or the basket of the cat, you can use the apostrophe s construction. This works fine for singular nouns that don’t end in an s. If a singular noun ends in an s then it’s fine to leave off the second s if it would make pronunciation difficult. The best example is names that end in s, such as Dickens or Bridges: Charles Dickens’ book; Mrs Bridges’ kitchen.
The apostrophe s rule also works with plural nouns that don’t end in s like children or women: the women’s bags; the children’s games. But most plurals are formed by adding an s to the singular noun, so what happens here? This is where many people are tripped up: just add an apostrophe – no need for an extra s. Keep an eye on the intended quantity or meaning: the dog’s basket (one dog) or the dogs’ basket (two or more dogs), not: the dogs’s basket.

Filling the gaps

The second common use of apostrophes is to indicate where one or more letters have been left out of a word. The most common contractions are those we use in everyday speech: don’t, won’t, it’s, can’t, I’m, you’ll, they’re – the list goes on. Missing out a couple of letters shortens the word, reduces the number of syllables and makes it quicker to say. In formal writing it is generally better to spell these words out in full unless you are reporting speech.

5 Common mistakes to avoid

1. Don’t use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns hers, ours, yours, its or theirs
2. Remember the difference between it’s (it is) and its (belonging to it)
3. Likewise, note the use of you’re (you are) and your (belonging to you)
4. Avoid the grammar pedants’ favourite, the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”: lettuce’s; apple’s; pear’s – these are all plurals and formed just by adding an s, no apostrophe required
5. No apostrophe in decades: the 1950s, not the 1960’s or in wars or events with a known duration: the Thirty Years War

There are some names and places that take an apostrophe, such as Land’s End, but others that do not like Golders Green or Earls Court. As there is no rule to govern these I always check the spelling, either on the internet or in a good reference like the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

avoid apostrophe anguish