A brief guide to apostrophes

Of all the grammatical errors that I encounter on a daily basis, the misuse of the humble apostrophe is certainly one of the most common. Whether it be simple mistakes such as confusing “its” with “it’s”, or the more fundamentally incorrect use of the apostrophe to reflect a plural, there seems to be a general misunderstanding of what an apostrophe actually means, and where it should be used. To address some of these issues, I’ve compiled this brief guide. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to post in the comments section below.

Contractions

Apostrophes are typically used to either denote possession, or to mark a contraction. We shall deal with the case of possession shortly, but to start with we will discuss contractions.

Contractions are actually fairly simple. The way to make sure you get them right is to read over your work and consider what it is you’re actually trying to say. An all too common error is the confusion of “your” with “you’re” and “there” with “their” and “they’re”.

To work out which is correct, it often helps to expand the contraction and say the alternative out loud just to be sure you are using the contraction in the correct way.

Consider the following:

You’re going to pay for that.” – “You are going to pay for that.” [Correct]

You’re looking good today.” – “You are looking good today.” [Correct]

Your help is very much appreciated.” [Correct]

Note that in the final example, if you replaced “your” with “you’re” the sentence just wouldn’t make sense:

You are help is very much appreciated.” [Incorrect]

You can apply this simple trick to checking your use of “there”, “their” and “they’re”, remembering all the while that “there” denotes where something is, “their” denotes that something belongs to a group, and “they’re” means “they are”.

Possessives

Social media is the bane of good grammar and punctuation. I still recall once reading a post from an English student no-less that read “God only know’s whats in a man’s heart”. The apostrophe in “know’s” is completely unnecessary and poor grammar for a number of reasons. Firstly, knowledge doesn’t possess you, you possess knowledge. Even then, the verb “to know” already implies ownership on the part of the individual (in this case, God). We do not for example say “Mike hold’s the ball”, just as we do not therefore say “Mike know’s the answer.” The use of an apostrophe here then is incorrect on a number of different levels.

A mistake many people make is to confuse singular and plural possessives. These first two are fairly simple:

“The cat’s claws.” (i.e. the claws of a single cat)

“The cats’ claws.”  (i.e. the claws of many cats)

However the problems tend to arise when dealing with plural possessives. Here the trick is to place the apostrophe as you would for the singular:

“The people’s champion.” (i.e. the champion of the people – “people” already means more than one person so you don’t say “the peoples’ champion.”)

In the case of names ending in the letter S, you actually have a choice. The more archaic (and often my preferred) option, is to say “Louis’ hat”, but you can equally say “Louis’s hat” – you just need to be consistent and remember the audience you are writing for. In some instances it might be preferable to use the second option, especially when writing for children!

Time

Many people don’t realise that time is possessive and obeys the same principles as does a cat or any other possessor.

“A weeks time” therefore becomes “A week’s time” (i.e. the time of a single week).

“Two weeks time” becomes “Two weeks’ time” (i.e. the time of two weeks).

Its and it’s

A common mistake that even I make on occasion is the use of “its” and “it’s”. As is the case with so many facets of the English language, there are actually more exceptions than rules, and so you should remember that it’s is a contraction of “it is” and does not mean something that belongs to “it”.

“its” on the other hand, does denote possession. So…

“It’s time we made a move” (i.e. it is time we made a move)

“It’s nice to see you” (i.e. it is nice to see you)

“Its claws were as sharp as knives” (i.e. the claws of whatever it is, were as sharp as knives)

Any questions, please feel free to post a comment below.

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