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Nothing in the wide, wide world of grammar seems to get people more agitated than the humble apostrophe (‘).

X (formerly Twitter) is bursting with images of butchers’ shop fronts, advertising boards and local newspaper articles in which the author has been a little vague with the use of this particular punctuation mark. Otherwise sane adults can turn an apoplectic pink at the sight of an apostrophe in the wrong place. So, where did the story of this tiny terror begin?

There are a few different punctuation marks that hang about above the text, but the apostrophe most closely resembles its line-bound cousin, the comma (,). It slants a little from bottom left to right, often with a small bulb at the top.

Use of the apostrophe

There are two proper uses for the apostrophe:

  • To indicate that letters are missing
  • To show that something is connected/belongs to something else


How to use apostrophes

Using the apostrophe when letters are missing

Use the apostrophe to show that some letters are missing from a word. Such as:

Could’ve (Could have)

I’ll ( I will)

Don’t (Do not)

In the examples above, the letters missing are straightforward – letters have been taken out and replaced with an apostrophe. However, there are times when words are shortened in an unconventional manner. For example:

Won’t (Will not)

In this example, the apostrophe is still used to indicate that letters are missing, but it has been done in an irregular way.

Traditionally, this is seen as an informal usage of the apostrophe. In formal writing, words are not usually shortened.

Using the apostrophe to show a connection

The apostrophe is often used to indicate a connection/belonging between two words. To do this, a “’s” is used. For example:

The woman’s guitar (the guitar belongs to the woman)

The website’s audience (the readers are connected to the website)

Nathan’s socks (the socks belong to Nathan)

In the cases above, the apostrophe is used before the “s”. However, there are times when the word representing the owner already ends with an “s”. When this occurs, the apostrophe is used after the “s”, and no extra “s” is added. For instance:

The rabbits’ burrows (the burrows belong to some rabbits)

The musicians’ instruments (the instruments belong to some musicians)

The footballers’ cars (the cars belong to some footballers)

There are plurals that don’t end with an “s”. For example, “sheep” and “women” refer to a lot of animals and people respectively. When this occurs, use the apostrophe with an additional “s” to indicate belonging. For example:

The sheep’s field (the field belongs to the sheep)

The women’s coats (the coats belong to the women)

It’s and Its

“It’s” and “its” are often confused. “It’s” is used to indicate a missing letter:

It’s nice in here (It is nice n here)

“Its” is used to show belonging, but for this, an apostrophe is not used.

The band writes its own songs

Examples of possessive apostrophes

I’m going to try on one of my big brother’s hats. (Correct)

You had a wonderful time on France’s Mediterranean coast, didn’t you? (Correct)

Kids’ parties are always a riot. (Correct – plural version)

Children’s teeth can really hurt them when they cut. (Correct – plural without an s)

My three dog’s tails are wagging furiously. (Incorrect – it should read dogs’ as it’s plural)

This is my cousin Algernon’s motorbike. (Correct)

This is Mr Davies’s house. (Correct, although Mr Davies’ would also be technically right)

Venus’ footsteps were still visible in the moonlit sand. (Correct – Classical names have no s)

My sister-in-law’s daughters are coming over later. (Correct – apostrophe after last element)

The King of Siam’s love of dance was legendary. (Correct)

He’ll be here in about five minutes time. (Incorrect – five minutes’ time is correct)

Examples of contraction apostrophes

I don’t think I can stay up much longer. (Correct)

Its political correctness gone mad. (Incorrect – It’s is short for It is, so an apostrophe is needed)

I’ve been waiting here for twenty minutes. (Correct – I have, present perfect tense)

I’ve a huge picnic basket full of food. (Incorrect – should be I have as it’s the perfect tense)

I first visited Germany in the mid-1990’s. (Incorrect – apostrophes are no longer used there)

How many pizza’s do you want? (Incorrect – apostrophes are no longer used for plurals after vowels)

I ate so many pizzas in Italy in the late 1990s. (Correct)

This garden is their’s; that one is ours. (Incorrect – theirs does not take an apostrophe)

People think of me as a ne’er-do-well ever since that accident in ’73. (Correct – apostrophe for shortened year)

This could be anybodys game now. (Incorrect – impersonal pronoun needs apostrophe, anybody’s)

R2D2 (Kenny Baker)’s costume was so hot and uncomfortable. (Correct – any option would be correct)

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