Little Book of Confusables

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:

Contractions

This is where two words are squished together to sound more informal – like when you are becomes you’re.

Possession

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.

ALWAYS.

Its describes something that belongs to it.

Like this:

  • the dog chased its tail
  • the cat drank its milk

When do plurals need an apostrophe? 

Absolutely never.

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.

No exceptions.

  • 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.

I never said it would be short. Feel free to tweet me or email if you’ve any questions.

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

Tips to remember the difference between ITS and IT’S

YOUR or YOU’RE? Simple tricks to get it right every time

LET’S vs LETS: when to remember the apostrophe

**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.

Stationery vs stationary: simple tips to remember the difference

STATIONERY vs STATIONARY: which is which? Tips and tricks to remember the difference

STATIONERY and STATIONARY are commonly confused – and often by people who really should know better. I’ve seen graphic designers and printers offering ‘eye-catching STATIONARY’ more times than I care to remember – most recently in a glossy brochure promoting the services of a Gloucester-based design agency.

It makes me cringe – and I’m not the only one. So, here’s a simple tip to help you remember the correct spelling every time.

STATIONERY is a noun that means the tools used in offices, or for writing – paper and pens, in a nutshell.

You can remember E for Envelopes, or ER in papER.

For example:

“I used to love going back to school after the long summer holidays. It was always a good excuse to buy new STATIONERY.”

STATIONARY is an adjective used to describe something that’s still, or not moving.

Remember the AR in pARked cAR.

For example:

“Sorry I’m late – I was stuck in STATIONARY traffic.”

“Sorry I’m late – I was stuck in STATIONERY traffic” makes no sense. Unless it was a queue of Office World vans.

I hope this simple tip helps you remember the difference between STATIONERY and STATIONARY.

Confusables stationary vs stationery. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Confusables: stationary vs stationery. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Number vs amount: top tips to remember which is which

Number vs amount: this simple tip will help you remember the difference

Of course you could! Here goes:

To start with, it can help to know that things you can count are called count nouns, and things you can’t count are called mass nouns.

Use AMOUNT for things you can’t count (mass nouns):

  • the amount of rain
  • the amount of information
  • the amount of coffee

Use NUMBER for things you can count (count nouns)

  • the number of rainy days
  • the number of facts
  • the number of cups of coffee

Simple as that: if you can count it, use NUMBER. If you can’t, use AMOUNT.

Did you know?

The same rule applies for LESS and FEWER, which are equally commonly confused.

Bonus tip

Once you know this, you can apply the same logic to MANY and MUCH.

Use MANY for things you can count, and MUCH for things you can’t.

For example:

  • Using too MANY words can confuse your message.
  • Too MUCH confusion can prevent customers from buying your products.
Number vs amount: simple tips to remember the difference

Number vs amount: simple tips to remember the difference