How to Use Apostrophes
Apostrophes are arguably the most incorrectly used item of punctuation in the English language, and their misuse causes reactions ranging from mild irritation to absolute rage. There have even been talks about removing them from the English dictionary, although that is more speculation than likelihood. The reason for the controversy they cause is simple: you either understand them, or you don’t.
People who cannot grasp how apostrophes work often complain that the rules don’t make sense or are too complex to learn. In reality, however, apostrophes are not that hard to master. There are just a few rules you have to follow and, once you’ve got those nailed, it’s easy.
You use an apostrophe if you are omitting letters from a word or if you merge words together or shorten words and letters are lost in that process.
I cannot believe that.
I can’t believe that.
Is not it.
I do not want you to do that.
I don’t want you to do that.
The apostrophe shows where the letters were removed, and shortens the word or words.
You use an apostrophe to denote that someone or something is the owner of an object or action.
The sword belonging to Jim is shiny.
Jim’s sword is shiny.
The paws that belong to lions are big.
Lion’s paws are big.
The wave the Queen gave was gentle.
The Queen’s wave was gentle.
Sometimes, the owner will be a word that ends in ‘s’ and this is where things can get a little complicated and confusing, if I’m honest. I have found three separate sources for this rule and they each say something different on what the official answer is when your owner word ends in the letter ‘s’ already. There are two options: add an apostrophe and no ‘s’, or add an apostrophe and an ‘s’.
A lot of this rule comes down to how you would say the word yourself.
The book that Charles owns.
The socks that belong to Marcus.
If you would pronounce the second ‘s’ then put it in, if not then don’t. Some publications have specific guidelines on this, others are flexible, but as long as you are consistent with either including a second ‘s’ or not, then go with whatever feels more natural to you.
If you want to make a word plural you don’t need to put an apostrophe in. If the word already ends in ‘s’ you simply add ‘es’ to the end.
I have a lot of swords and axes
I am called Marcus and he is also called Marcus, so we are both Marcuses.
Apostrophes are not required for acronyms or numbers, with the slight exception of single letters (dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s) or individual numbers, but even then it is not necessary. If you are referring to more than one digit or letter, apostrophes should never be used.
Its or It’s
This can cause a lot of confusion, as well. It’s is used for contractions, as normal, such as it is or it has, whereas its is used for possession where the owner is referred to as it. There are no apostrophes when you make it possessive.
The face on it has Roman numerals.
Its face has Roman numerals
The legs that belonged to it were wooden.
Its legs were wooden.
It is not funny anymore.
It’s not funny anymore.
It has been raining today
It’s been raining today
The reason no apostrophe is used with possession is to avoid confusion with contraction. Its is really the only exception to the rule, so if you remember that, you will manage.
Apostrophes are not that difficult, and when mastered they enhance writing. Begin with a good proof-reader and learn from your mistakes. Practice and eventually it will become second nature.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.