Ah apostrophes. The bane of sign-makers and internet pedants everywhere. It seems so simple; they’re just commas in the sky, but dig a little further and they will trip you up with their many howevers and buts. So let’s dive right in and answer: How do you use apostrophes?
We’ll start this writing guide with the basics. Apostrophes have two functions; they indicate possession and the omission of letters. Let’s start with possession.
“Derek’s nose seems longer today.”
Nice and simple. The nose belongs to Derek, so we add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ on the end. This is also the case if we’re working with objects rather than people.
“The table’s legs seem longer today.”
The legs belong to the table: apostrophe and ‘s’ on the end. The possession rule also holds when what is possessed isn’t physical, such as:
“It was Scooby’s word against mine.”
The word is still Scooby’s even though it isn’t a physical possession.
Things start to get a little more interesting when you add in more of the letter ‘s’. When dealing with standard plurals (i.e. plurals that end in an ‘s’), you move the apostrophe to after the ‘s’.
“The tables’ legs seem longer today.”
By moving the apostrophe, I am indicating that there is more than one table. There is already an ‘s’ on the end in this instance to indicate the plural of ‘table’ and there is no need to add another. Non-standard plurals get the same treatment as the singular:
“It was the children’s favourite summer clown.”
‘Children’ is a plural but has not ‘s’ on the ends so we add an apostrophe and ‘s’ as if it were the singular.
When dealing with someone or something that already ends in ‘s’ but isn’t a plural, things get a little less clear. Which of the following is correct?
“Chris’ article on apostrophes was so informative.”
“Chris’s article on apostrophes was so informative.”
Actually, both are acceptable. The second is probably a little more common, but either is fine. The important thing is to be consistent in your application.
So that’s possession, let’s move on to omission.
Apostrophes of Omission
Contractions are words that are formed by removing a letter or letters from larger words or groups of words. It is most usual to group two words together and remove certain letters to make a shortened version. Let’s have a look at some examples.
“Let’s have a look at some examples.”
I took the phrase ‘let us’, removed the ‘u’ of ‘us’ and grouped them together to form the word ‘let’s’. Where I removed the ‘u’, I added in an apostrophe.
“Shouldn’t we warn the gatekeeper?”
Again, I’ve shortened the phrase ‘should not’ to ‘shouldn’t’ and added an apostrophe where I removed the ‘o’.
Standard contractions aren’t the only place you can use apostrophes of omission. If you want to omit letters in dialogue to convey accent or dialect, then you will use apostrophes in just the same way.
“‘er ‘at ain’t on straight guv’nor.”
…is one such example. You know, if you happen to be writing a particularly ham-fisted, fastidiously fashion-conscious cockney.
So far, so simple. If you miss out a letter, throw in an apostrophe. If you want to indicate possession, throw in an apostrophe. But, it wouldn’t be the English language if it didn’t throw a few curve balls, so let’s have wander through murkier waters.
A pronoun is a word that is used in place of a noun or proper noun (or nouns/proper nouns), such as I, me, you, it, their etc. And here is where apostrophes start to get a little trickier.
Although all of these sentences indicate possession, none of them are correct:
“The dog wagged it’s tail.”
“The game was her’s to lose.”
“My heart is your’s.”
“Their’s is the biggest space station.”
I could go on, but I think you get the point. All of these sentences make sense, but as they use pronouns, the apostrophes are dropped.
“The dog wagged its tail.”
“The game was hers to lose.”
I will give a special mention to the word ‘it’s’ because that is the only word among them (as it can be used as both object and subject) that is a word. The contraction rule still applies and so the word ‘it’s’ is used when, and only when, it is an abbreviation of ‘it is’.
“It’s a fine day for spelunking…”
…is a perfectly good sentence, for example. A similar example is the word ‘who’s’. For a possessive, the word is ‘whose’.
“Whose canoe is this?”
Whereas the contraction (who is) is ‘who’s’.
“Who’s going to claim this canoe?”
So, we just don’t use apostrophes for pronouns, right? Well…
I’m going to add one more asterisk to confuse you and then, hopefully, unconfuse you again.
“One’s understanding of canoes is dependent on the quality of canoe education.”
This sentence is grammatically correct, despite ‘one’ being a pronoun in this case. In fact, an apostrophe should be used in all cases of indefinite pronouns. That is pronouns that are non-specific to a particular person, group or thing. I’ll give a few more examples.
“It has to be someone’s canoe.”
“Oh, so it is nobody’s canoe?”
“Fine, then I guess from now on, it is everybody’s canoe.”
And that’s all there is to it. It seems kind of tricky when you see it all at once, but it’s really not that hard when you get into it. Many of us will have picked up most or all of these examples simply through saturation of context. We’ll have seen them all so often that we know, for the most part, where the apostrophes should go. It never hurts to have a deeper understanding of the whys though, and an understanding of the rules and guidelines for those times when we’re not quite sure.
So let’s quickly recap. Use an apostrophe when you omit a letter or letters from a word or words, whether or not it is a standard contraction. Also use an apostrophe when you are indicating possession; that is that something is of or belongs to someone or something. This is the case for nouns, proper nouns and for indefinite pronouns, but not when using other forms of pronouns.
I hope this writing guide has helped and I haven’t been too confusing. If you want to guard yourself further against pitfalls in grammar and punctuation, we can lend a hand on run-on sentences and Oxford commas.
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By Chris Wright