The apostrophe is a sneaky little punctuation mark that doesn’t always play by the rules. When exactly do you need one? And where should it go?
If you’re not always sure when and where to use an apostrophe, there’s nothing to be ashamed of – believe me, you’re not alone! Plenty of native English speakers struggle with this one.
But it’s worth trying to get it right – because if you don’t, people may misunderstand what you’re trying to say. Apart from which, a misplaced or missing apostrophe can annoy your readers and make your writing look unprofessional.
The inspiration for this post came from a recent visit to a writer’s forum, where I came across a thread entiltled:
“Bringing out emotion’s in copywriting”
That gate-crashing apostrophe brought out some emotions in me, I can tell you!!!! And this was on awritingsite for goodness’ sake!
For anyone who doesn’t understand what I’m on about, in the above example the word ‘emotions’ doesn’t need an apostrophe – because it’s just a plural of the word ‘emotion’. It would only be correct if the author meant it to mean “emotion is in copywriting”, which seems very unlikely.
You hardly ever use an apostrophe to make a word plural.There are only one or two rare exceptions to that rule – but more of that later!
As you can probably tell by now, I get a bit hot under the collar about apostrophes – call me a pedant, but I think it matters. Because where you put an apostrophe can affect themeaning of the sentence. In other words, put an apostrophe in the wrong place – or miss one out where it’s needed – and your writing won’t make sense.
If you’re trying to make money blogging, copywriting, writing eBooks, SEO content writing or from any other writing jobs, it’s really important to get your basic writing skills up to scratch. The odd dodgy apostrophe might seem trivial – maybe you think I’m being picky? But believe me, it could cost you money. Because some of your potential customers are likely to be put off if they spot glaring errors like the one I saw on that forum.
So – my mission in this post is to give you some clear, simple tips to make sure you put those apostrophes where they belong!
How to Avoid Turning Apostrophes into Catastrophes
Apostrophes are usually only used for two reasons:
- To indicate ownership (as in “the dog’s bone”)
- To replace missing words or letters when words are contracted (as in “there’s something missing here”). This can be very useful when you want your writing to be more informal and colloquial. I do it a lot when I’m writing posts. “There is something missing here” sounds more stilted, doesn’t it?
- But please note, there are some exceptions to the above rules. For example, that rebellious little word “its” (which doesn’t have an apostrophe when it’s possessive – aaarrrggghh!) Don’t worry – all will be revealed!
Let’s (“let us”) look at these in a bit more detail.
Using Apostrophes to Indicate ‘Ownership’
Apostrophes are often used to indicate ownership or possession. This usually involves putting an apostrophe at the end of the word representing the ‘owner’, followed by the letter ‘s’, like this:
“The girl’s dress” (= the dress belonging to the girl)
Please note, that if the word itself ends in ‘s’, you still do the same thing, as in:
“The headmistress’s office”
When the ‘owner’ is plural, the rule is that you make the noun plural first,thenadd the apostrophe. Where the pluralized word ends in ‘s’ you just place the apostrophe right at the end of the word, after that final letter ‘s’, like this:
“The girls’ dresses”
“The headmistresses’ offices”
Where the pluralized word doesn’t end in ‘s’, you still add an ‘s’ after the apostrophe, like this:
“The children’s playground”
“The men’s room”
“The people’s choice”
Using this kind of apostrophe inappropriately is often known as a ‘grocer’s apostrophe’, because you tend to see it on market stall signs advertising “cabbage’s” or “carrot’s”. These are simple plurals, which should be written as “carrots” or “cabbages”.
When grammar anoraks see signs like that they’re inclined to scream things at them like “the carrot’s what?!”
The picture opposite is a classic example of two unnecessary apostrophes. The sign should just read “MOTs” and “Crash Repairs”.
Using Apostrophes to Replace Missing Letters
Apostrophes are often used to replace missing letters when we contract words for brevity or to make our writing less formal. I’ve already done this several times in this post – in fact I’m doing it again now! So here are two examples from that last sentence:
“I’ve” – instead of “I have”
“I’m” – instead of “I am”
Here are some more examples:
“We’re” – instead of “We are”
“Here’s” – instead of “Here is”
“It’s” – instead of “It is”
“He’ll” – instead of “He will”
“Couldn’t” – instead of “Could not”
“Can’t” – instead of “Cannot”
“Won’t” – instead of “Will not”
A Few Exceptions to the Rules
“It’s” or “Its”?
It’s only correct to put an apostrophe in “it’s” when it’s short for “it is” – as at the beginning of this sentence.
When “its” is possessive, you do NOT add an apostrophe, for example:
“The dog chewed its bone”
This breaks the normal rule on using an apostrophe to indicate ownership, as in:
“The dog ate the cat’s food” (This happens a lot in our house – we have a labrador!)
But if you write “the cat chased its own tail” – there’s no need for an apostrophe. Got it?
Yours, Hers, Ours and Theirs
Like “its”, these are all maverick ‘possessive’ words that do NOT need an apostrophe.
You NEVER, NEVER use an apostrophe with any of these words!!Here are some examples:
“Is she a friend of yours?”
“That house is ours”
“I didn’t have a copy so she lent me hers”
“Theirs was a much better idea”
Warning: You will see native English speakers adding apostrophes to these words, as in “your’s sincerely” or “it was her’s” but this is incorrect.
Whose or Who’s?
Who’s reading this post?
Whose idea was it to make English such an infuriating language?
“Who’s” is always short for “who is”, as in “the girl who’s wearing the blue dress”
“Whose” is always ‘possessive’ (even though there’s no apostrophe!), as in “the girl whose dress is blue”
Dotting i’s, Crossing t’s – and Minding Your p’s and q’s
- As a general rule you do NOT use apostrophes to form plurals.If you’re writing the kind of word that needs an ‘s’ on the end to make it plural, like those grocer’s cabbages and carrots, then just add that little old ‘s’. There’s no need to embellish it with an apostrophe! (Please note, the word “grocer’s” in that last sentence needs an apostrophe because it’s possessive).
- However, you DO use an apostrophe to form the plural of lowercase letters – as in the examples in the above heading. There’s a logical reason for this – “Dot your is and cross your ts” is potentially confusing. So we add an apostrophe to make things clearer.
”Dot your i’s and cross your t’s”
”Mind your p’s and q’s”
It can also be acceptable to use an apostrophe to form the plural of some abbreviations and numbers, but only if it’s necessary for clarity. For example:
“1′s, 2′s and 3′s”
But if you’re writing about, say, the 1960s, there’s no need to add an apostrophe – it’s clear enough as it is.
Remember – punctuation in English grammar is all about helping your reader
At the end of the day, the whole point of getting punctuation right is to make your writing clear and understandable. An apostrophe in the wrong place can be confusing – that’s why it’s important.
Just to sum up, if you’re ever not sure whether to use an apostrophe, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it needed to indicate ‘ownership’ or ‘possession’? But remember those special possessive words that NEVER need an apostrophe: YOURS, THEIRS, OURS, HERS, WHOSE – and ITS (which only has an apostrophe if you’re using it to replace “it is”)
- Is it needed to replace something that’s missing?
- If it’s to form a plural, is it absolutely necessary for clarity? (If not, LEAVE IT OUT!!!) Remember, as a general rule, you do NOT use an apostrophe to form plurals.
If you were in any doubt about when and where to use an apostrophe, I hope that’s helped to make things a bit clearer.