Use apostrophes correctly

Apostrophes act as signals to readers. They may seem insignificant, but when they are used incorrectly they confuse readers and slow down their reading.

Are you’re sometimes unsure about whether a word needs an apostrophe? This article will help you understand the general rules. It’s actually quite simple: there are only two occasions when you need to use an apostrophe:

  1. to represent missing letters – this is known as a contraction
  2. to show that something belongs to someone – this is known as possession.

However, as is often the case with English grammar and punctuation, there are some exceptions. This article will help you manage most situations, but if you’re still unsure consult your organisation’s style guide or a good dictionary.

Contractions

Contractions are shortened forms of words or phrases; we use an apostrophe to show the missing letters. Here are some common examples:

Long form Contraction

cannot                        cant

we will                        well

is not                           isnt

they have                   theyve

let us                            lets

Because we use contractions in our everyday speech, they are often easier for people to read and understand. Therefore, organisations that encourage plain language may prefer staff to use contractions in their writing, especially when they are writing for the public. However, contractions are casual and don’t suit formal documents.

Possession

We use apostrophes to show possession, or that something (a noun) belongs to someone.

Singular nouns

When you want to show possession of one item (a singular noun), in most cases you simply add apostrophe+s. Here are some examples:

  • the government’s policies (one government)
  • the manager’s office (one manager)
  • my colleague’s work (one colleague).

Singular proper nouns that end in ‘s’

Proper nouns are the names of people; places; and things such as organisations, committees, schemes, events, buildings and brands.

There are different schools of thought on how to treat a singular proper noun that ends in ‘s’. The first approach is to add apostrophe+s; the second approach is to add only an apostrophe. For example:

  1. Minister Morris’s office is on Lambton Quay (approach 1)
  2. the Ministry of Fisheries building is up for sale (approach 2).

My advice is to check your organisation’s style guide. If it doesn’t have a style guide, pick one approach and use it consistently throughout your document.

Organisations and places

Here’s a general tip about writing the names of organisations or places whose names ends in ‘s’. Always check to see if they use an apostrophe. Web references, such as a Google business page, sometimes omit apostrophes, so it’s best to check official records or websites. For example:

  • Barclays Bank (no apostrophe)
  • Hawkes Bay (apostrophe)
  • Kings Cross Station (apostrophe)
  • McDonalds Restaurants Limited (apostrophe)

Plural nouns

When you’re writing about more than one item (a plural noun) the plural will usually end in ‘s’. When you want to show possession of a plural noun, in most cases you simply add an apostrophe. Here are some examples:

  • the governmentspolicies (more than one government)
  • the managers office (more than one manager)
  • my colleagues work (more than one colleague).

The same principle applies to a plural proper noun that ends in ‘s’. For example,

  • the Jones campervan

Plural nouns that do not end in ‘s’

Some plural nouns do not end in ‘s’ (such as women and children). In these cases, treat the plural noun as a singular noun and add apostrophe+s. Here are some examples:

  • the women’s bathroom (NOT the womens bathroom)
  • the children’s teacher (NOT the childrensteacher).

Common mistakes

Some people get confused about when to use apostrophes and end up overusing them. Avoid these mistakes!

Plurals

This is the most common mistaken use of apostrophes. The simplest example is what has become known as the grocer’s apostrophe. For example, you may have seen signs like this:

5 apple’s for a dollar, which should of course be written ‘5 apples for a dollar’ (no apostrophe).

People often incorrectly add apostrophes when they write decades and capitalised abbreviations. Here are some examples:

  • The road was built in the 1950’s should be the road was built in the 1950s (no apostrophe) or the road was built in the ‘50s (the apostrophe indicates the missing ‘19’).
  • Six MP’s attended the meeting should be six MPs attended the meeting (no apostrophe).
  • That shop sells CD’s and DVD’s should be that shop sells CDs and DVDs (no apostrophe).

Possessive pronouns

Possessive pronouns such as ‘yours’, hers’, ‘ours’ and theirs’ never take an apostrophe. Here are some examples:

  • That child is theirs and not that child is their’s.
  • This office is hers and not this office is her’s.

I hope this post has helped you understand when and how to use apostrophes. I help governments, NGOs and international aid agencies by creating documents that are useful and easy to read. Contact me to see how I can make a difference to your organisation.