How to use apostrophes correctly

It’s easy to use apostrophes correctly – just check out this guide

A painting that says You've Got This to illustrate a post about how to use apostrophes correctly

Illustration by Jen Peters via Design Love Fest

This is probably the grammar geek’s biggest bugbear – never was a punctuation mark so horribly abused. But its usage is incredibly simple to get right because it is only used in two circumstances – to indicate either possession or omission.

Not where an s at the end of a word simply makes that word into a plural. You will probably see this done 10 times a day but it is all kinds of wrong and, once you know how to use apostrophes correctly, it will become offensive to your eyes, nay, your very existence. So, no apple’s for sale or ticket’s on offer or key’s cut here or under 5’s free. Not even 1850’s or 1980’s – decades are also plurals (here implying the years from 1850-1859 or 1980-1989) and do not require an apostrophe. The reason people get confused is that you often see, for instance, the ’60s, to show the omission of 19 in 1960s. (For the record, you can write ’60s if you want to, but most people leave out the apostrophe these days and that’s fine.)

So, back to the point. Let’s look at possession first.

We use an apostrophe + s to show that something belongs to someone: John’s book, Amy’s phone, etc.

If the word already ends in an s, you can either add an apostrophe to the end of the word and have done with it, or you can add an apostrophe AND an s. The conventional rule of thumb is to think about how you’d say it out loud – would you say Mr Jones’ car or Mr Jones’s car? There’s no right or wrong answer – just whatever sounds right to you.

HOWEVER, where there is more than one possessor we put the apostrophe after the s: the girls’ toys, the dogs’ food.

BUT where the possessors are already pluralised, the apostrophe stays before the s: the children’s clothes, the women’s shoes.

UNLESS the plural in question already ends in an s, in which case the apostrophe moves after the s, again: ladies’ .

Still with me?

It’s also worth noting that when we say “possession”, we don’t always mean that literally. Sometimes we are not talking about ownership, as such, but a relationship or association – which is why you have phrases such as girls’ school or a week’s notice. The girls don’t literally own the school and the week doesn’t literally own the notice, but the apostrophe is still needed to show a kind of possessive relationship between the two. An easy test is this – if you can reword the phrase to include the words “for” or “of”, then that usually indicates that an apostrophe is needed – a school FOR girls, a week OF notice.

Now onto omission.

In this case, the apostrophe indicates that a letter, or letters, have been missed out in a shortened word called a contraction: can’t (the no of cannot has been removed); don’t (a contraction of do not) or they’re (from they are).

The one word that causes most confusion here is it’s, but the rule is very straightforward – you only use an apostrophe to indicate a contraction of it is. If the word indicates possession, you don’t need one.

But, you’re thinking, didn’t you say you needed an apostrophe to show possession, too? I did, but here the word its is a possessive adjective (aka a possessive determiner) – like my, your, hers or his. So, just as you wouldn’t write hi’s or her’s, you also wouldn’t write it’s.

The same goes for whose/who’s. You only write who’s when it’s short for who is.