How to use apostrophes: your guide to perfect punctuation
The humble apostrophe – never has a punctuation mark got so many people hot under the collar.
People message me on a daily basis with examples of misplaced apostrophes (“Saw this and thought of you…”). I even created the #apostroppy hashtag to share uses of apostrophe abuse across social media.
Ultimately, mocking apostrophe misuse – or getting wound up by imposter apostrophes (imposterophes?) – doesn’t help if you’re one of the many who finds it tricky knowing where to stick the little blighters.
Like most things in life, it’s easy when you know how.
And if you don’t know how, let me show you.
Here, in simple terms*, is my beginners’ guide** to apostrophes… and where to stick them.
What apostrophes do
In a nutshell, apostrophes have two main uses:
This is where two words are squished together to sound more informal – like when you are becomes you’re.
This is where you want to show that X belongs to Y – the dog’s blanket, for example.
How to use apostrophes in contractions
Let’s start with contractions.
When we talk, we naturally blend words to sound more casual and conversational, like this:
- don’t rather than do not
- you’ll rather than you will
- I’m rather than I am
- it’s rather than it is
These shortened forms are called contractions. The apostrophe fits into the contraction to show where letters are missing – simple as that.
More examples of how apostrophes work in contractions
- I would = I’d
- she would = she’d,
- you would = you’d
- I am = I’m
- she is = she’s
- you are = you’re
- I will = I’ll
- she will = she’ll
- you will =you’ll
- does not = doesn’t
- is not = isn’t…
You get the picture.
How to use apostrophes to indicate possession
This is where things get a little more tricky. Possessive apostrophes show that a thing (a noun) belongs to something, or someone.
Here’s the basic rule:
When the noun is singular – dog, writer, shop – you add apostrophe + s, like this:
- The dog’s blanket
- The writer’s pen
- The shop’s opening hours
When the noun is plural – there’s more than one of them – the word usually (not always) ends with s. When this is the case, you add the apostrophe after the s, like this:
- The dogs’ blankets
- The writers’ pens
- The shops’ opening hours
Remember I said usually? That’s because some plural nouns don’t end with s, like this:
- One child, two children
- One woman, two women
When that’s the case, just add apostrophe + s, like this:
- The children’s toys
- The women’s shoes
A simple tip for using possessive apostrophes
If you’re in any doubt where to put the apostrophe when you’re indicating possession, just turn the phrase around in your head, like this:
The toys belonging to the child = the child’s toys
The toys belonging to the children = the children’s toys
(Never, ever write the childrens’ toys. That would mean = the toys belonging to the childrens, which is wrong.)
How to use possessive apostrophes in names that end in s
Style guides differ in their guidance on whether to write Charles’ or Charles’s, Dickens’ or Dickens’s and the like. Here it’s okay to pick the one that sounds best, as long as you use it consistently throughout your document.
Just don’t make the mistake a Northern Ireland council made, when they wrote Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations instead of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Reprinting the giant advertising poster was reported to have cost taxpayers over £1,000.
It’s vs its: why possessive pronouns are the exception to the rule
One of the most common apostrophe mistakes is sticking an apostrophe in the word its to show something belongs to IT.
But this rule doesn’t apply to pronouns – its, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs.
It’s is always a contraction of it is or it has.
Its describes something that belongs to it.
- the dog chased its tail
- the cat drank its milk
When do plurals need an apostrophe?
You’ve heard of the grocers’ apostrophe, right? Most commonly spotted on market stalls advertising BANANA’S, APPLE’S and PLUM’S , those grocers are completely wrong.
Because you should never – I repeat, NEVER – use an apostrophe in plural words.
- Cats, pens, teachers, apples, words… no apostrophe.
- Even when the word ends in a vowel: tomatoes, potatoes, videos… still no apostrophe.
- Even when the word is an abbreviation: CDs, DVDs, MOTs… still no apostrophe.
It’s a simple rule, and there are no exceptions to trip you up.
No matter how many times you see an apostrophe intended to show that there’s more than one of something, it’s always wrong. Always.
So, there we have it. Your beginners’ guide to using apostrophes.
Want more information on how to use apostrophes?
*Remember how I snuck a cheeky asterisk back there after ‘in simple terms’? This article is intended to cover the basics of how to use apostrophes.
If you’d like to read more – or to go into more detail on certain uses of the humble apostrophe – you might find the following articles helpful.
Phrases such as two weeks’ time, six weeks’ holiday, and one day’s notice need an apostrophe. I cover the rule for using apostrophes in time expressions in this article:
Don’t get caught out by the apostrophe in time expressions
**This is a guide for beginners (plural) so the apostrophe goes after the S. You could argue that you’re a beginner and it’s your guide, and therefore the apostrophe should come before the S. And you’d be right, but as it’s intended for more than one of you, we’ll stick with convention.
PS one old-school rule you can ignore
Way back when, it was common practice to use an apostrophe to show an abbreviation – telephone was abbreviated to ‘phone, for example. Thankfully, you no longer need to worry about this archaic type of apostrophe use.
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