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Worry-free writing: how to use apostrophes

Worry-free writing: how to use apostrophes

Why are apostrophes such a problem?

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to enrage the Grammar Police (who, by the way, are definitely not cool), it’s people who, for whatever reason, don’t know how to use apostrophes correctly.
We really do seem to have a big problem with them – whether they’re missed out or put in where they have no business being, lots of people just can’t seem to get it right. For them, how to use apostrophes is the punctuation equivalent of pin the tail on the donkey – a matter of luck more than judgement whether they hit the mark!
I think apostrophes are a problem for lots of people because:
  • there is more than one way of using an apostrophe
  • the apostrophe rules also have exceptions (thanks, English language!)
  • like everything else in the English language, how the apostrophe is used can sometimes be a style choice rather than a hard and fast rule
  • we see so many instances of incorrect use it can be difficult to remember the right way to use them.

What is an apostrophe used for?

Generally, there are only two main reasons for an apostrophe’s existence. That’s right, two. And if you can get those two reasons clear in your mind then you’ve a much higher chance of using one correctly.
1 In contractions, to show that a letter has been left out.
2 To show possession, i.e. that something belongs to someone.

How do I use an apostrophe in contractions?

Here the apostrophe is used to show that one or more letters has been left out when combining two words:
is not
cannot
should not
they had
=
=
=
=
​isn’t
can’t
shouldn’t
they’d
I have
we will
​we would/had
you are 
=
=
=
=
I’ve
​we’ll
​we’d
​you’re

So far, so straightforward, yes?
Just be sure to note that the apostrophe goes where the missing letter is. You should never write is’nt or Iv’e.

How do I use an apostrophe to show possession?

So this is where things start to get a bit more complicated!
Let’s start with the straightforward bit.
We use an apostrophes to show that something belongs to someone or something:
  • Denise’s blog post
  • Andy’s passport
  • the book’s cover
  • an hour’s time

 

I think most people are OK with this. But what if the word already ends in s?
Most punctuation guides will now go with the ‘if you say it then write it’ rule.
  • Ross’s video
  • James’s gym

 

Leaving off the s is pretty much a matter of style in this context these days – some publications stipulate their preference in their style guide.
My friend Ross is positively affronted if you write Ross’ and leave off that second s. So be warned – some people feel strongly about this one!
However, when the end of the word is pronounced iz or ez, you can safely leave off that second s.
  • Mrs Bridges’ kitchen (not Mrs Bridges’s, as you wouldn’t say Bridgeses here)
  • Socrates’ collected works (Not Socrates’s as you shouldn’t say Socrateses!)

Possessive pronouns

Now, when we come to possessive pronouns, this is where it gets a bit sticky.
A pronoun can be used in place of a noun in a sentence:
  • Sarah and Danny’s house is yellow. 
We can use the pronoun their in place of Sarah and Danny and write: ​
  • Their house is yellow.
We can go further and rewrite this sentence using the possessive pronoun theirs:
  • The yellow house is theirs.

There is never an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun!

This goes for all the possessive pronouns that end in s:

 

  • hersyoursours, and, of course, the biggest culprit, its.

     

And I really hope you wouldn’t try to shoehorn an apostrophe into his!
(The difficulty people have in using its and it’s correctly is such a hot potato that I wrote a blog about it.)
​So you would write:

 

  • That magnum of champagne is ours.
  • Is this jacket yours?
  • Put the record back in its sleeve!

     

I get that this must seem illogical and confusing, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it – you just have to accept that there are lots of these inconsistencies in our language and try to do the right thing!

When can I leave out an apostrophe?

Short answer? In plurals.
When there is more than one of something, you don’t need an apostrophe – the plural ending is quite enough, whether that’s ses, or ies.

 

  • a dozen free-range eggs
  • two pounds of tomatoes
  • five yummy mummies

 

See? Not an apostrophe in sight!
But … but … what about possessive plurals? Ooh, meltdown alert! Don’t be tempted to just give up at this point, though. You can work it out!

 

Possessive plurals

 

A plural never takes an apostrophe, but when you want to show that something belongs to that plural, then here comes that apostrophe, just to muddy the waters!

 

If you want to show that a plural is possessive, and it already ends in s, then you only need to add an apostrophe after the s:

 

  • the boys’ football boots (the football boots belonging to all the boys)
  • the foxes’ den (the den belonging to all the foxes)
  • the ladies’ cocktails (the cocktails belonging to all the ladies)​

     

And when you have a plural which is irregular (you haven’t simply added s to make it plural), you add ‘s just like any other possessive:

 

  • men’s shoes
  • the children’s bedroom
  • the mice’s cage

     

Is there an exception to not using an apostrophe in plurals?

Of course! This is English – we have exceptions for everything!
If not adding an apostrophe would make your plural unreadable or confusing, then it’s OK to add an apostrophe.
This is why you might see:
  • read the do’s and don’ts
  • mind your p’s and q’s
There is no agreement on this approach, but Grammar Girl gives some nicely pragmatic advice about it:
‘Unless your editor wishes otherwise, if you write books, spell it dos and don’ts; and if you write for newspapers, magazines, or the Web, spell it do’s and don’ts. If you’re writing for yourself, spell it any way you want.’

 

Phew, I think we got there!

I hope this has helped you to understand when you should and shouldn’t use an apostrophe. I don’t expect you to have had a Eureka! moment (if you did, I really want to hear about it!), but I hope I’ve shone some light on what, for many people, is a very fuzzy area.
A very useful reference book is The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, which I recommend to my clients.

Over to you!

What do you think? Has that helped you get a better picture of when to use an apostrophe?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions you might have for other topics to include in my Worry-free Writing series.
If there’s a grammar point you’re not clear on, or a punctuation mark you’re not sure about, drop in a comment below, or tweet me using the hashtag #WorryFreeWriting.

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