4 Simple Things to Remember about Apostrophes

By Ralph Mason

Apostrophes can seem like trivial, petty little things, and hardly worth the trouble they cause! But they are quite important. Using them well can make your writing a lot clearer, and using them poorly is a really bad look.

So take a few moments to make sure you’ve got a handle on apostrophes. At the end, I have a simple test for you.

1. Ownership

words with apostrophes

A major use of apostrophes is to indicate possession, or ownership. For example, the bone of the dog is the dog’s bone. If we leave out the apostrophe in dog’s bone, we have dogs, indicating the plural—that is, many dogs—which will cause momentary confusion for the reader.

Exceptions

There are some important exceptions to watch out for. Tradition dictates that these possessives don’t have an apostrophe: hers, its, yours, ours, theirs, his.

These are known as possessive pronouns. You just have to remember that they don’t have an apostrophe! (See below for more on its vs it’s.)

Dealing with words ending in s

What if it’s the dog of James? James already ends in s. The answer depends on how you prefer to say it aloud. Either of these is fine: James’ dog or James’s dog.

Ownership and plurals

The dog’s bone means the bone of the dog—that is, just of one dog. What about the bone of the dogs? Dogs already has an s at the end. The answer is simple: just place the apostrophe after the s: the dogs’ bone.

Watch out for some plurals. The plural of company is companies. So we get the company’s website (that is, the website of the company), but the companies’ websites (or the websites of the companies).

Family names can be tricky. The Jones family can be referred to as the Joneses. In that case, you’d refer to the Joneses’ dog, with the apostrophe at the end.

Also be careful with words like men, women and children. Because these are already plural, you just add ’s as usual. For example, the men’s team played the women’s team.

2. Apostrophes with Plurals

words with apostrophes

When you have more than one dog, you have dogs. Simple: you just add an s to the word.

Unfortunately, there can be a temptation to add an apostrophe to plurals even when ownership isn’t involved. This is a huge mistake, and is traditionally called the greengrocer’s apostrophe, as it’s very common to see signs for apple’s and orange’s outside fruit shops. O dear!

Making exceptions to avoid confusion

Occasionally, an apostrophe is used with plurals to avoid confusion. For example, the phrase mind your p’s and q’s would be confusing without apostrophes.

Be careful, though. There’s nothing confusing about referring to CDs, DVDs, CMSs and the like, so don’t use apostrophes there (as in CD’s). And there’s no need for an apostrophe in something like the 1990s.

3. Missing Letters

words with apostrophes

In English, we often contract words. For example, instead of saying that is nice, we say that’s nice. The i of is gets dropped, and the s joins with that.

You may argue that it’s no big deal to leave out an apostrophe here, because there’s no apostrophe in spoken English. But there are two reasons to get this right. Firstly, you look silly if you can’t do something as simple as this. Secondly, leaving it out can lead to confusion.

For example, it’s common to reduce he will to he’ll. Leaving out the apostrophe here would be hell. Likewise, instead of she’ll, we’d end up with shell. And we’d would be wed, we’ll would be well, we’re would read as were, and so on.

Even though we don’t use an apostrophe in spoken English, we pronounce he’ll differently from hell, so it’s important to differentiate them in writing.

It’s vs Its

Perhaps the most common and embarrassing punctuation error is the confusion between it’s and its.

It’s is a contraction of it is (or it has). So a simple way to determine whether or not its requires an apostrophe is to see it if makes sense as it is.

For example, it’s a nice day makes sense as it is a nice day. Thus, the apostrophe is required.

However, the dog chewed its bone can’t be changed to the dog chewed it is bone. Thus, an apostrophe is not appropriate here.

As we saw above, its is a possessive pronoun, and traditionally doesn’t have an apostrophe—just like hers, theirs and so on. If the possessive form of its did have an apostrophe, it would get confused with it’s (it is).

By the way, if you’re wondering when it’s appropriate to use its’, the answer is never!

Other words that get confused

Other words get badly confused when apostrophes are left out.

You’re (short for you are) is often confused with your. This is really just a straight out spelling mistake, but it arises partly from not thinking about what’s being expressed.

Likewise, they’re (short for they are) is confused with their (meaning of them) and there (indicating location).

And don’t confuse who’s (short for who is) with whose (meaning of whom).

4. Apostrophes with Verbs

Verbs are action words, like run, sit and walk. When used with he, she and it, we add an s: he runs, she sits, it walks.

A common mistake is to add an apostrophe, thus producing run’s, sit’s, walk’s. There’s never a time when this is appropriate, and such usage really should be a capital crime.

Test Yourself

OK, here’s a chance to test yourself. Which of these examples uses correct punctuation? (Answers are provided below.)

  1. It’s OK to ask questions.
  2. Most dog’s possess a tail.
  3. Marys’ blog is better.
  4. Dont be so sure.
  5. Well, we’ll see.
  6. You’re going to regret this.
  7. She cut off their tail’s with a carving knife.
  8. She was the people’s advocate.
  9. The car lost its hubcap.
  10. The bosses’ employees went on strike.
  11. DVDs are are a bit old now.
  12. A woman played in the mens’ team.
  13. The Web began in the early 1990’s.
  14. She clearly walk’s the walk.
  15. Mr Apple’s oranges are very sweet.
  16. He was in his 40s when he got married.
  17. Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth.
  18. It’s hard keeping up with the Joneses.

So, how did you go? Do the explanations in this article make sense? If you have any questions, please raise them in the comments.

Here are the correct examples from the list above:

1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18
  • hidran arias

    Nice article. I know these rules even if english is not my mother tongue. It irritates me when I see its instead of it’s for example.
    I would add another one : anyways! there is always but not anyways: use anyway.

    This one is also unbearable: more then instead of more than or than instead of then.

    • Ralph Mason

      Hehe, yes, there’s plenty of material if you want to write about annoying things in spelling and word usage. :-) “Anyways” certainly isn’t formal language—whatever that really means—but people do say it, so it’s inevitable it will appear in print now and then.

  • Nice one, Ralph.

    One that’s doing my head in at the moment. I’m seeing people consistently write things like: “It wasn’t even he’s fault”. I’m not a literacy pedant generally, but something about that one hurts my brain.

    • One that irritates me is the confusion between its and it’s!

      • Ralph Mason

        That’s probably the most obvious problem online. I originally wanted to start the article with that issue, but in the end decided it was better not to. Still, if there’s one change I could effect online, it would be to fix that issue!

      • I can kinda see why people make that error a little though. If you wrote “Apple’s new iPhone’ versus “Apple released it(‘)s new iPhone” you can see where people are attributing possession to the ‘it’. I suppose people are doing a similar thing with ‘he’ but it feels worse.

        Mind you, it’s mostly forums and comments where I’m seeing that so i should temper my expectations. ;)

    • Ralph Mason

      O yes, that really hurts. TBH, that sort of usage wasn’t in my mind while writing this article. I probably would have lost heart and given up! :p

    • Here is a way how it is possible to get paid 65 dollars an hour… After being unemployed for half-a-year , I started working ! over this site and today I possibly can not be happier. 3 months have passed since being on my new job and my income is around five-thousand $/a month -Check internet-website i use on MY~DISQUS~

    • Michael Costa

      It’s Siri’s fault. :) Btw, being an unabashed pedant, I must mention the period you placed should have been before the end of your latter quotation mark. Are we all having fun yet? I almost said Our we all having fun yet just to troll, but it’s not my style.

  • Good grammar: it’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

    • Best comment ever.

    • Ralph Mason

      Hehe, yes, one of my favorite examples. You can probably understand why I didn’t include it in the article. :-)

  • kathleen burgess

    I have a friend who started her new facebook page called Kaleido Glass Design’s by Anna. Since it’s brand new, I suggested leaving the apostrophe out…this is correct, right?

    • Ralph Mason

      Yep, she definitely needs to remove that apostrophe! There shouldn’t be an apostrophe there when “Designs” is just plural—that is, indicating “more than one design”.

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