What is an apostrophe?
An apostrophe is a punctuation mark. Many sources advise that contractions and possessives are the only rules for apostrophes.
Unfortunately, this is a misleading and simplistic view.
Fortunately, I have created 6 headings that will improve your understanding of when apostrophes should be used.
When do you use an apostrophe?
You use an apostrophe to show that you have omitted some letters.
- They’re = They are
- Who’ve = Who have
- She’s = She is
- Wouldn’t = Would not
Sometimes you need to change the letters when you contract words, for example:
- Won’t = Will not
Did you know: o’clock is a contraction for ‘of the clock’.
In different dialects, people may shorten words and an apostrophe is used to mark this. Examples include:
- ’bout = About
- ’twas = It was
- Y’all = You all
and even y’all’re for you all are/you are all.
2. Possessive/Genitive Case
Although often categorised as the possessive case, the correct name for this category should be the genitive. The reason for this is because the apostrophe doesn’t always signify possession. Look at the example below:
Example: The boy’s teacher was angry.
The boy doesn’t own the teacher, so to describe it as possessive is inaccurate.
This category can cause confusion, so try to learn the below:
- Plural nouns not ending in s take ‘s e.g. children’s, people’s, women’s.
- Plural nouns already ending in s take an apostrophe after the pre-existing s to form the possessive e.g. three cats’ toys.
- If a singular noun ends with an s sound (spelled with -s, -es), practice varies as to whether to add ‘s or the apostrophe alone. A widely accepted practice is to follow whichever spoken form is judged better: the boss’s shoes, Mrs. Jones’ hat.
A big misconception is that the purpose of an apostrophe is solely to signify possession.
This is not an accurate representation. It has the potential to completely transform the meaning of a sentence. My favourite example is by Kingsley Aims who comically and effectively showed this is true:
- Those things over there are my husband’s. (Meaning: Those things over there belong to my husband).
- Those things over there are my husbands’. (Meaning: Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine)
- Those things over there are my husbands. (Meaning: I’m married to those mean over there)
Steven Pinker highlighted how the apostrophe can play an important role in eliminating ambiguity in sentences:
- My sister’s friend’s investments. (Meaning: the investments belonging to a friend of my sister)
- My sisters’ friends’ investments. (Meaning: the investments belonging to several friends of my sister)
- My sisters’ friend’s investments. (Meaning: the investments belonging to a friend of several of my sisters)
- My sisters’ friends’ investments. (Meaning: the investments belonging to several friends of several of my sisters)
3. Plurals of individual characters, symbols, and acronyms
If you need to write the plural form of a letter or symbol, it is correct to use an apostrophe. If you correctly dot you i’s and cross your t’s, you will use an apostrophe as well!
Acronyms and initials (e.g. CD, DVD, TV) follow the same rule as singular nouns so they require an apostrophe.
But don’t use apostrophes like below!
4. Time and money
If you reference time and money, it is important to use an apostrophe:
Example: I need two week’s holiday from work. (Holiday of two weeks)
However, this can be a bit confusing:
Incorrect: She is three month’s pregnant. (people don’t say ‘pregnant of 3 months’)
Correct: She is three months pregnant.
Transfer the language like I did above to check if you should use an apostrophe.
5. Business names
This is actually quite a controversial topic and an activist group called the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) campaigned that businesses should reinstate and/or include the apostrophe in their name. Unfortunately, the APS closed in November 2019.
If the business is based on a family name, it should have an apostrophe. For example, Donnelly’s Bakery. Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s are examples of large companies that still use the apostrophe.
However, the practice of using an apostrophe in business names is becoming less common. APS believe companies such as Harrods and Barclays should reinstate the apostrophe that went missing somewhere in their history. If you want to keep the memory of the APS alive, use the apostrophe!
A simple rule to finish up with is that you should use an ‘s to show you are the member of something e.g. a team or organisation.
Example: Paul is a member of a rugby team. It is Paul’s rugby team.
We hope you have enjoyed this blog on apostrophe and that you have found it both educational and useful. If you have any comments or additions to make, we would love to hear about them below.
Or you may enjoy the below books:
The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage – Kingsley Aims
The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker