The Problematic Apostrophe

The correct use of the apostrophe is a common error among students experiencing difficulty with writing and spelling (and even among some that don’t have this difficulty).

To understand the apostrophe, you need to know a little English language history.  In Old English words had a possessive form.  For example, to indicate that the king owned the castle, you would write ‘the kinges (pronounced as two syllables) castle’. Over time, this two syllable pronunciation gradually slid into a one syllable pronunciation ‘kings’.

Apparently, Grammarians of the 17th century then decided that the deleted syllable should be indicated and hence the apostrophe was introduced – the king’s castle.

In addition to showing ownership, an apostrophe is used to indicate missing letters in contractions (e.g., she is becomes she’s, did not becomes didn’t).

The trick for students is to decide whether to add s (indicating the plural form) or ’s (indicating ownership or a contraction). This process is made even more difficult when many signs, especially place names, do not use the apostrophe correctly.

My suggestions:

  • Try reading your sentence using the words in full rather than in the contracted form. If the sentence makes sense saying the complete words, you know you need the apostrophe. If it doesn’t, then you know you just need s.

    Its a dog – ‘It is a dog’  makes sense – therefore you need the apostrophe.  It’s a dog.
    Its collar is red – It is collar is red doesn’t make sense – therefore you do not need the apostrophe.

    Shes happy – she is happy makes sense – therefore you need an apostrophe – she’s happy.

    His arm – hi is arm – doesn’t make sense – so you don’t need the apostrophe – his arm.

  • Try replacing the word with your own name. You know that there is only one of you, so if it makes sense placing /s/ on the end you know you ned an apostrophe. If it doesn’t make sense, then you know it is the plural form and just needs s.

    The dogs bowl is red –Lillian’s bowl– make sense, so you need the apostrophe – the dog’s bowl.
    The dogs are eating – Lillian’s are eating – doesn’t make sense, so you don’t need the apostrophe.


Butler, s. (2014). The Aitch Factor. Macmillian Australia Pty Ltd: Sydney.




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