ApostrophesAn apostrophe (') is a punctuation mark used to replace a letter (or letters). An apostrophe can also be used to show possession (e.g., dog's nose), but this too is linked to the idea that an apostrophe replaces a letter. You see, in old English, possession was shown by adding es:
- doges nose, dogses noses.
- dog's nose, dogs' noses.
- To show possession (e.g., one dog's kennel, two dogs' kennel)
- In time expressions (e.g., a day's pay, two weeks' holiday)
- In contractions (e.g., can't, isn't, don't)
- To show an awkward plural, if it helps your readers (e.g., Hawaii has two i's.)
- To show normal plurals (e.g., three cat's [wrong], two video's [wrong])
- Randomly before the letter s (e.g., He like's me. [wrong])
Examples of Apostrophes Used for PossessionAn apostrophe can be used to show possession.
- The dog's kennel
- The dogs' kennel
- Wagner's music is better than it sounds. (Writer Mark Twain)
- I was devastated when they stopped making sailors' pants with bell bottoms. (Actress Katherine Waterston)
- One dog's dinner
- One dog's dinners
- Two dogs' dinner
- Two dogs' dinners
(Quirk 1) A plural possessor that doesn't end sWith a plural word that doesn't end s (e.g., children, women, people, men), put your apostrophe before the s.
- children's toys
- Zeus does not bring all men's plans to fulfilment. (Ancient Greek author Homer)
- women's hat
- (In grammar, "possession" does not always mean ownership. This means a hat for women. Similarly, Picasso's painting is a painting by Picasso. He doesn't own it. Sometimes, it's about "possession" in the loosest terms.)
- men's sizes
- people's poet
(Quirk 2) A singular possessor that ends sWith a singular word that ends s (e.g., Wales, Moses, Chris Wells), either add ' (just an apostrophe) or 's depending on how you (yes, you personally) pronounce it.
- Dr Evans' report (This is correct for those who say Dr Evans report.)
- Dr Evans's report (This is correct for those who say Dr Evansiz report.)
- Chris Wells' gherkin (This is correct for those who say Chris Wells gherkin.)
- Chris Wells's gherkin (This is correct for those who say Chris Wellsiz gherkin.) It is a common convention to use just an apostrophe with religious characters. So, opt for versions like Jesus' hands and Moses' beard as opposed to Jesus's hands and Moses's beard.
(Quirk 3) A possessor that's a compound nounWith a compound noun like mother-in-law, add 's to the end, regardless of whether it is singular or plural.
|sister-in-law's car||sisters-in-law's husbands|
|colonel-in-chief's arrival||colonels-in-chief's meeting|
|maid of honour's bouquet||maids of honour's dresses|
(Quirk 4) A possessor comprising two possessorsWith a possessor comprising two possessors, apply the apostrophe ruling to both for individual ownership but just the second for joint ownership.
- Andrew's and Jacob's factories (individual ownership)
- Andrew and Jacob's factory (joint ownership)
- India's and Pakistan's problems (individual ownership, i.e., separate problems)
- India and Pakistan's problems (joint ownership, i.e., common to both)
Examples of Apostrophes Used in Time ExpressionsApostrophes are used in time expressions (also called temporal expressions) like a day's pay and two weeks' notice.
The big question with these is where to put the apostrophe. The good news is we've already covered it: the apostrophe goes before the s for a single unit of time (e.g., one day's pay) and after the s when it's plural (e.g., two days' pay).
- I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun. (American inventor Thomas Edison)
- If you can fill the unforgiving minute
with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
and – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son! (Writer and poet Rudyard Kipling)
(This is an extract from Kipling's poem "If".)
- Lee has eaten a pound's worth of liquorice and 2 pounds' worth of lemon drops.
- My neighbour is in the Guinness World Records. He has had 44 concussions. He lives very close to me – a stone's throw away, in fact.
Examples of Apostrophes Used to Replace LettersAn apostrophe can be used to replace a letter (or letters) in a word to reflect how we speak. More often than not, this practice will involve merging two words into one (called a contraction).
- When I was born, I was so surprised I didn't talk for a year and a half. (Comedian Gracie Allen) (Here, didn't is a contraction of did and not. The apostrophe replaces the o in not.)
- I'd agree, but then we'd both be wrong. (Anon) (Here, I'd is a contraction of I would, and we'd is a contraction of we would. The apostrophe replaces the letters w, o, u and l in would.) Here is a list of common contractions.
- There are two c's, two o's and two m's in accommodation.
- There are no a's in definite and definitely.
- You use too many but's in your writing.
- Your z's look like 2's.
- BUY THREE CD'S FOR THE PRICE OF TWO (When text (often a title) needs to be written with all uppercase letters, it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to show a plural.)
- Charles Dickens' novel (His name is Charles Dickens. Everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor.)
- John Dicken's profile (This person is John Dicken. Remember, everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor.)
- one dog's kennel
- two dogs' kennel
- I like pig's. Dog's look up to us. Cat's look down on us. Pig's treat us as equal's. [wrong] (The words in bold are all wrong. This quotation should have no apostrophes.)
- Tomato's and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French; garlic makes it good. [wrong] (This mistake is particularly common when forming the plural of a noun that ends in a vowel, e.g., video's [wrong], banana's [wrong]. It should be tomatoes in this example.)
- A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it fly's out, you cannot catch it. [wrong] (This mistake occurs with verbs too. This should be flies.)
- a year's insurance (a year of insurance)
- two weeks' holiday (two weeks of holiday)
- To me, old age is always 15 years' older than I am. [wrong] (Badly transcribed version of a quotation by the Irish painter Francis Bacon)
- Could of ironed it. [wrong] (On 8 March 2018, an internet troll posted a picture of a badly creased "International Women's Day" banner with the caption "Could of ironed it". He was slaughtered far more for writing could of than for being sexist.)
- There are two Cs, two Os and two Ms in accommodation. (An alternative for "There are two c's, two o's and two m's in accommodation.")
- There is no A in definite or definitely. (An alternative for "There are no a's in definite and definitely.")
- You use "but" too much in your writing. (An alternative for "You use too many but's in your writing.")
- Your Zs look like 2s. (An alternative for "Your z's look like 2's.")
- BUY THREE CDs FOR THE PRICE OF TWO (An alternative for "BUY THREE CD'S FOR THE PRICE OF TWO")
- It's spelt Hawaii not Hawai. (An alternative for "Hawaii has two i's.")
- When using an apostrophe to show possession, everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor. That's a 100% rule.
- Don't shove an apostrophe in a word just because it ends with an s. Stick to the rules. Be particularly vigilant with words that end vowel + s (e.g., bananas, cameras) and with times (e.g., months, years).
- If can't expand your it's, you're or they're to its full versions (i.e., it is/has, you are or they are), then it's wrong, and you should be using its, your or their/there.
- Don't write could of, should of or would of…ever.
- You can use an apostrophe to show an awkward plural, but, out of respect for those who won't like it, have a quick stab at finding an alternative.
|he'd||he had, he would|
|he'll||he will, he shall|
|he's||he is, he has|
|I'd||I had, I would|
|I'll||I will, I shall|
|it's||it is, it has|
|she'd||she had, she would|
|she'll||she will, she shall|
|she's||she is, she has|
|that's||that is, that has|
|there's||there is, there has|
|they'd||they had, they would|
|they'll||they will, they shall|
|we'd||we had, we would|
|what'll||what will, what shall|
|what's||what is, what has|
|where's||where is, where has|
|who'd||who had, who would|
|who'll||who will, who shall|
|who's||who is, who has|
|you'd||you had, you would|
|you'll||you will, you shall|
Examples of Apostrophes in Awkward PluralsThe first thing to say about this topic is that apostrophes are not normally used to show plurals, and lots of your readers will hate it if you use an apostrophe for this purpose. However, that said, there are times when it helps to use an apostrophe to show a plural.
Why Should I Care about Apostrophes?Writers can be divided into two groups: those who get apostrophes and those who don't. The former considers the latter to be uneducated. So, if you're flying by the seat of your pants with apostrophes, learn how to use them properly because you are being judged. Fact.
Here are the key issues related to apostrophes.
(Issue 1) Be accurate when identifying your possessor.Take a second to identify the possessor and then put the apostrophe immediately after it. If you do this, you can ignore all of those quirks about where to place an apostrophe used for possession.
|Category||What are we trying to say?||Write it with no apostrophe||Identify the possessor||Put your apostrophe immediately afterwards|
|singular noun||ball of the dog||dogs ball||dog||dog's ball|
|plural noun||kennel of the dogs||dogs kennel||dogs||dogs' kennel|
|plural noun not ending s||poet of the people||peoples poet||people||people's poet|
|singular noun ending s||emblem of Wales||Wales emblem||Wales||Wales' emblem|