How to use apostrophes in your writing

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The apostrophe is a punctation mark that seems to cause a lot of headaches. So, this week I take a look at the correct use of this pesky little mark and highlight some common issues that crop up in everyday writing. Historically, apostrophes have been around since the sixteenth century. They were first used to show that one or more letters had been left out. This is still one of their two primary uses. Then, over the following couple of hundred years the apostrophe ʼs came into use to denote possession. I think this is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, especially when a word ends in s or is plural.

Using the apostrophe to show possession

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 man’s coat; the girl’s ribbon. Think of the apostrophe s as standing for ‘of’, so if you can say the coat of the man or the ribbon of the girl, you can use the apostrophe s construction. If you read the words aloud, I’m sure you’ll agree that ‘the girl’s ribbon’ sounds much more natural than ‘the ribbon of the girl’.

What happens when a word ends in an s?

The system just described 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. However, as you’ll see in the final paragraph, it is also fine to use a second s if it sounds right – in the word business’s (belonging to one business), for example. 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.

Using an apostrophe to show letters have been removed

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.

Five common errors

  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: lettuces, apples, pears.
  5. No apostrophe in decades: the 1950s, not the 1960’s

Also watch out for …

Some names and places use an apostrophe, such as Land’s End, but others that do not like Golders Green or Earls Court. The current trend with names and titles is to drop the apostrophe, but there is no hard and fast rule, so you’ll see Sainsbury’s and Macdonald’s with an apostrophe but Barclays and Lloyds banks without. As there is no rule to govern these I always check the spelling, either on the business’s own website or in a good reference guide like the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.