In my very first blog post, I promised to slay the apostrophe demon. I missed the day apostrophes were taught in school, and lived in a slightly panicked fog for the next 15 years. I used to put them over the s and hope that my reader would presume I had meant it to fall wherever was correct!
Following International Apostrophe Day on 16th August and a lot of hoo har over a young TV personality not knowing or caring that her company’s name was gobbledy-gook, I’m going to follow up on my promise to clear the apostrophe fog for ever more.
Don’t panic! Apostrophes are easy!
You can read until the end of your days all the views and opinions, but really, you only need to remember three things. It’s simple, I promise you. Follow these three rules and you’ll never have trouble again.
Use an apostrophe to show there are letters missing
In speech we shorten words that in formal writing we should spell in full. An apostrophe matters where there are letters missing because the shortened form can mean something very different to another (unshortened) word that sounds the same.
It’s is short for it is and means something completely different to its – which is a possessive pronoun and belongs with his, hers, and so forth – no apostrophes in them either!
- His coat
- Her book
- Its bed
The same rule applies to:
- who’s (who is) and whose,
- you’re (you are) and your,
- they’re (they are) and their.
Apostrophes also indicate missing letters in o’clock (of the clock), don’t (do not), I’ve (I have) and so on and so on. They are becoming archaic in ‘phone (telephone) and ‘plane (aeroplane) etc. It’s a shame, because I think Hallowe’en looks far spookier than Halloween, but there we go.
An apostrophe is needed to indicate possession
This seems to be a major problem. Sarahs chair is nonsense, we need an apostrophe to tell us that is it the chair belonging to Sarah – Sarah‘s chair.
Why is Sarahs chair nonsense? Well, suppose it was a chair made out of different types of wood – that would be the woods chair. If it was a chair that belonged to Mr Wood, then it would be Wood’s chair. Without the apostrophe, we don’t know!
Suppose the chair belonged to James instead? Don’t panic, the rule doesn’t change. It is James’s chair. See? The noun (Sarah, James, pig, child) followed by apostrophe-s
- Sarah’s chair (one chair belonging to one person called Sarah)
- James’s chair (one chair belonging to one person called James)
- The pig’s food (some food belonging to one pig)
- The child’s toys (some playthings belonging to one child)
Well then, what if we are writing about lots of pigs? It’s no harder. That’s the pigs’ food. Use s-apostrophe where the ‘owner’ of the item is a plural ending in s.
- Pigs’ food (some food belonging to lots of pigs)
- Flowers’ scent (the smell from a lot of flowers)
- Mothers’ Day. (Both forms of this are correct. It depends on whether you mean it is a day for one mother – Mother’s Day, or a day for all mothers – Mothers’ Day.)
Hang on – I used the child’s toy as an example up there. How about lots of children then – surely that’s childrens’ toys? No – because the word children is already plural, unlike the word pig. We don’t have to add an s to children to indicate more than one child. We do have to add an s to indicate more than one pig. So, it should be
- the pigs’ food (some food belonging to more than one pig)
- the children’s toys (some toys belonging to more than one child)
The easy way to tell where the apostrophe goes is to turn the sentence around. The food belonging to the pig (no s) = pig’s food. The food belonging to the pigs (with s) = pigs’ food. The toys belonging to the children (no s) = children’s toys.
An apostrophe is used to indicate time or amount
Use an apostrophe when the word being modified is a noun: two days’ time, three years’ sentence, one month’s wait. Do not use an apostrophe where the modified word is an adjective – such as nine months old. Test this by trying it out in the singular: one month’s work (noun) but one month old (adjective).
That’s it. There are no other uses of this tricky little fellow in English. The apostrophe doesn’t ever appear in potatoes, CDs, 60s, says or any of the weird and wonderful places it is so liberally scattered.
Everyone has a laugh at “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” – all those apple’s and orange’s. That’s become such a part of our culture, that I’d almost be sorry to see it go. Large companies, however, really should know better. Tesco are famous for their cavalier attitude to them, and they are not the only big name who should be ashamed. If you can’t communicate clearly, what else can’t you get right?
Fancy testing your apostro-knowledge? Take the Apostrophe Test!
Joanna is a copywriter, SEO content creator, and social media adviser who can sort out your written communication to make it effective and you look good.