The Annoying Awkward Apostrophe


An apostrophe looks similar to an old fashioned 9 flying in mid-air like a kite. It comes from the Greek word apostropos meaning ‘the omission of a sound or syllable’.

Apostrophes are used to show:

Contractions: Two words are combined into a shortened version pronounced as one word. The apostrophe is placed in the location of the missing letter(s).

  • it is=it’s
  • do not=don’t (not do’nt)
  • you have=you’ve
  • he would=he’d

Be careful of words like your/you’re, its/it’s, theirs/there’s, were/we’re, whose/who’s. An easy way to check is to expand the contraction to see if it makes sense. ‘It is leg is broken’ doesn’t make sense so we know the correct spelling is its (without an apostrophe). ‘You are’ very helpful makes sense, so we know the correct spelling of the word is you’re (with an apostrophe).

Omissions: Often in every day speech, not all of the letters are pronounced. To indicate this in the written form an apostrophe is placed in the location of the missing letter(s).

  • rock ‘n’ roll=rock and roll
  • ‘twas= it was
  • nothin’=nothing

Note: An abbreviation is different from an omission. For example, phone is an abbreviation of the word telephone, and therefore no apostrophe is required.

Possessives: Apostrophes are also used to show ownership. In effect, it’s like a shorthand way of replacing the words ‘belonging to’.

  • Pam’s dog=the dog belonging to Pam.
  • The bird’s feathers=the feathers belonging to the bird.

However, there are some complications:

If the word already ends in an ‘s’, there is a lack of consensus as to whether or not you add another ‘s’ or just use the apostrophe in isolation. In some dialects of English the ‘s’ is added if it is normally spoken, but omitted if it is not.

  • Ross’s bag.

If the noun is in the plural form, you just add an apostrophe and no ‘s’.

  • The girls’ balls=the balls belonging to all the girls.
  • The girl’s ball=the ball belonging to one girl.

If you’re not sure, whether the word needs an apostrophe or not, replace the word with a name. If you need an ‘s’ to you know you need an apostrophe.

  • We gave the students books. We gave Betty books makes sense, so no apostrophe needed.
  • We gave the students books to the bookshop. We gave Betty books to the bookshop doesn’t make sense, so we need an apostrophe. Now we just need to decide if we are referring to:
    – lots of students: We gave the students’ books to the bookshop.
    – or one student: We gave the student’s books to the bookshop.

Using apostrophes to show time:

1970’s= anything that occurred in the year 1970.

1970s=anything that occurred in the decade 1970 to 1979.

1 day’s time

2 weeks’ notice.

Shared possession: When you are referring to two or more people/objects, you need to decide whether each requires an apostrophe and ‘s’ or just the last mentioned.

  • Mary and Dave’s house=the one house belonged equally to both Mary and Dave.
  • Mary’s and Dave’s houses=Mary and Dave each had their own house.

Attributive apostrophes: An attributive noun is a noun that describes another noun, essentially making it an adjective. In these instances, no apostrophe is required.

  • Farmer’s market=a market belonging to one farmer.
  • Farmers’ market=a market belonging to several farmers.
  • Farmers market=a market for farmers.

Be careful of attributive nouns that end in ‘s’.

  • ‘The New South Wales scenery was spectacular is correct.
  • To check just change with a noun that doesn’t have an ‘s’ – The French scenery was spectacular.

Organizations and street nouns: The inclusion or exclusion of apostrophes is completely arbitrary and you just need to look it up.

  • Lloyd’s of London vs Lloyds Bank.
  • Fire Brigade Union vs Musicians’ Union.
  • St James’s Park (London) vs St James’ Park (NUFC Stadium) vs St James Park (Exeter FC Stadium).

Possessive pronouns & adjectives: Possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs) and possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) are used to avoid repetition. These do not need apostrophes.

Indefinite pronouns: Used to refer to a general group of people or things (everybody, nobody, somebody, someone). These do take an apostrophe: Everyone’s bags were lost.

Some extra knowledge:

If the word ends in a ‘y’ to make the plural form of the word – change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’ (lady-ladies), except when the ‘y’ follows a vowel (boy-boys).

  • The ladies bought new hats=Lots of ladies bought new hats.
  • The ladies’ hats=the hats belonging to lots of ladies.
  • The lady’s hat=the hat belonging to one lady.

If the word ends in ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘x’, ‘s’, ‘o’ or ‘z’ to make the plural form of the word – add ‘es’: witch-witches.

  • The witches rode their broomsticks= Lots of witches riding broomsticks.
  • The witches’ broomsticks=the broomsticks belonging to lots of witches.
  • The witch’s broomstick=the broomstick belonging to one witch.

A final thought:  If you get it wrong – well everyone makes mistakes!!


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