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How to Properly Use an Apostrophe

Updated on December 21, 2012
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

A poignant lesson on punctuation... cheaper than a new sign if not quite as pretty
A poignant lesson on punctuation... cheaper than a new sign if not quite as pretty | Source

For such a small thing the humble apostrophe seems to get a rough ride. The way it is used can be confusing, for sure, but there are simple methods that will guarantee it gets employed in the proper manner more often.

In a nutshell, the apostrophe has two main functions: to take the place of letters omitted from words - as in contractions - and to indicate possession. This article will try to help you get to grips with these two functions, giving you a few tips and tricks to rely on so that you'll have a better idea of when to use an apostrophe and when not to use one.

Apostrophes Showing Omission

You see apostrophes most frequently wherever contractions are used or where letters are omitted from words. These generally appear in informal writing, in text you find in emails, in less formal letters and in certain forms of web content or sales literature. It is common for writers these days to include contractions when writing articles for public consumption, as these can often portray a sense of familiarity and help the writer appear friendly and non-threatening.

Contractions are words shortened by removing some of the letters. These include the following:

  • Don't instead of do not
  • Can't instead of can not
  • Isn't instead of is not
  • Weren't instead of were not
  • Haven't instead of have not
  • It's instead of it is or it has
  • I'll instead of I will or I shall

This is not an exhaustive list but hopefully it gives you the idea. Another type of omission occurs in words that are abbreviated, such as gov't. Here the original word has been shrunk down considerably so that most of the letters have been replaced.

A picture of the punctuation mark, the apostrophe
A picture of the punctuation mark, the apostrophe | Source

In many cases apostrophes have fallen out of usage, as in words like phone, net and bus. Technically phone should be written as 'phone, net as 'net and bus as 'bus - since these are all abbreviations of larger words (i.e. telephone, Internet and omnibus).

Apostrophes feature at the beginnings of certain words where for some reason they seem easier to cope with. These include:

  • 'Til as in 'til the cows come home
  • 'Twas as in 'twas the night before Christmas
  • 'Bout as in it weighs 'bout twenty ton

The Apostrophe's History

The apostrophe comes from the French language and was adopted into English some time in the 16th century. It was commonly used to indicate elision (the omission of one or more sounds in a word or phrase) as in the following examples:

  • L'heure instead of la heure
  • L'eau instead of le eau
  • L'etudiant instead of le etudiant

Apostrophes Showing Possession

The possessive apostrophe works in a slightly different way. Here it is used not to take the place of a letter or letters, but to indicate possession. Instead of saying "the dress of Mary" for example we can simple state Mary's dress. This tells us that the dress belongs to Mary and is a faster and more effective way to get the message across.

This is perhaps the most confusing use of the apostrophe and the one that causes the most difficulty. One reason for this is that plural words ending in -s look exactly the same as they would in the possessive case, but without an apostrophe. The trick then becomes knowing when the word is possessive and when it is simply a plural.

One way to get round the issue is to try to rewrite the sentence. For instance, if you wanted to write about more than one boy, you would use the plural of that word - boys - in a sentence such as this:

  • The boys enjoyed themselves.

You can clearly see that more than one boy is involved, so the word "boys" should be written as a plural. There's no need to use an apostrophe. If, however, you were writing about something that belonged to the boys, you might state:

  • The boys' clothes were dirty.

You could rewrite this sentence as follows: The clothes belonging to the boys were dirty. This shows that the word "boys" is possessive and should therefore be followed by an apostrophe.

How To Use Apostrophes

A sign showing the way to Green Craigs with a pointless apostrophe
A sign showing the way to Green Craigs with a pointless apostrophe | Source

Common Apostrophe Mistakes

We've already looked at using apostrophes with plurals, as in the sentence with the boys' dirty clothes. It can be confusing to know whether or not to put an apostrophe before the s or after it, so here's the rule in brief:

  • If there's only one boy, the apostrophe comes first, followed by an s
  • If there's more than one boy, the s comes first, followed by an apostrophe

Of course, this applies to any noun whose plural ends in s, and not just boys. Here are some examples to show you how it works:

  • The cat's pajamas (when only one cat is involved) - the pajamas of the cat
  • The cats' pajamas (when more than one cat is involved) - the pajamas of the cats
  • The ship's sails (when only one ship is involved) - the sails of the ship
  • The ships' sails (when more than one ship is involved) - the sails of the ships
  • The doctor's patients (when only one doctor is involved) - the patients of the doctor
  • The doctors' patients (when more than one doctor is involved) - the patients of the doctors

Perhaps the most common mistake when using an apostrophe occurs with the words its and it's. Here are two simple pointers to remember that will take all the mystery out of it for you.

It's is an abbreviation for it is or it has. If you want to know if "it's" is the correct word to use, simply read the sentence and see if you can substitute the words it is or it has. If you can, then it's the right choice.

Its, on the other hand, is a pronoun like his or her. His refers to a masculine - his shoes are muddy. Her refers to a feminine - her dress is pretty. Its refers to a thing which is neither feminine nor masculine, such as a house - its chimney was black with smoke. To decide if "its" is right for your sentence, turn the thing into a male or female. For example, suppose a tractor had got stuck in the mud. You could write:

  • Its wheel was buried in the dark, thick clay.

Is using the word "its" correct? To find out, imagine the tractor is masculine. If it was, you'd write:

  • His wheel was buried in the dark, thick clay.

That works perfectly well, so we know that using "its" is the right choice.

Apostrophe's Other Uses

As stated earlier, these are the two main uses for an apostrophe: to show possession and to show where letters have been omitted. Apostrophes can also be used to make plurals of text that does not form proper or complete words, or of words or phrases we don't often see written in the plural form, such as in the following examples:

  • Mind your p's and q's
  • No if's, and's or but's about it

Find out how much you've learned about apostrophes by taking the quiz below!

Applying Apostrophes

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