Basics of punctuation: the dreaded apostrophe

As I write, I am looking at two photos I took recently in my local area. One shows the awning of a café in the High Street that reads: ‘Traditional Breakfast’s’; the other is a promotional car for Mercedes Benz (who really should know better), inviting people to call them about ‘this months offers’.

As eagle-eyed readers will notice, the first example has an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong, while the second is missing an apostrophe that should be there. I wish there was a way I could swap one for the other!

So why do people struggle more with the little apostrophe than any other punctuation mark?

Perhaps because of poor teaching at school, or maybe they simply copy common misuses, or it could be that — at first glance — the rules of its usage don’t seem to make sense. But, like anything, it’s easy when you know how.

So here’s a simple guide:

Plurals

If it’s a plural — that is, a word meaning ‘more than one’ and ending in s — you do NOT use an apostrophe.

Examples: breakfasts, bananas, bicycles

Exception:

-If it’s a single letter word e.g. There are three a’s in “banana”

Possessives

If it’s a possessive — that is, a word meaning something belonging to something else — you DO use an apostrophe.

Examples: Auntie Millie’s breakfast, the monkey’s banana, 70’s fashion

Tip:

-Try replacing the apostrophe with ‘of’ to check e.g. The breakfast of Auntie Millie, banana of the monkey, fashion of the 70s

Note:

-If the word is singular, the apostrophe goes BEFORE the s e.g. The cat’s pyjamas

-If the word is plural, the apostrophe goes AFTER the s e.g. Many cats’ pyjamas

-If the word is already plural, the apostrophe goes BEFORE the s e.g. The children’s bicycles

-If it’s a name that ends in s, you can choose whether to put the apostrophe before or after the s e.g. Jesus’s sandals, Jesus’ sandals

Exception:

-The little word — Its. See below.

Contractions

If it’s a contraction — that is, a word that has some letters missed out — you DO use an apostrophe.

Examples: I can’t [cannot] do that, I don’t [do not] like that, you wouldn’t [would not] like it either

It, its and it’s

People seem to get themselves in more of a tangle about this than any other usage!

In most cases, if it’s possessive, you do NOT use an apostrophe, while if it’s a contraction, you DO use one.

‘Its’ is the exception, because it’s a word in its own right.

Tip:

-Try replacing the ‘its’ with HIS, HER or THEIR. If that works, it’s a possessive — but as it’s a whole word it does NOT need an apostrophe

-Try replacing the ‘it’s’ with IT IS. If that works, it’s a contraction and it DOES need an apostrophe

Still stuck? Ask me for help or download this amusing poster from the Oatmeal and stick it on your wall as a reminder.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply