This is one of the most common problems people have with punctuation – the dreaded apostrophe. This poor little pet is the most abused punctuation mark in the language, and it’s a dear little thing when you get to know it – all it wants to do is to please. It has only two functions to perform and they’re both straightforward, but still, it gets pushed in where it doesn’t belong or left out of where it wants to be.
Let’s take a moment to sort this out once and for all.
Just When Do You Use An Apostrophe?
1. Use the apostrophe to show omission
What’s a nice kid like me doing in a place like this?
We started with two words, what and is, but because this is informal writing, we want to express it informally, so we omit a letter from the word is. Because we’re well brought up little Vegemites (remember?), we let people know what we’ve done.
- I could’ve danced all night. (could have, not could ‘of’)
- It’s time for breakfast. (It is time…)
- It’s been raining all day. (It has been raining…)
So, in future whenever you see an apostrophe, make a conscious effort to work out what the original word was before the letter was omitted. Sometimes, as in the case of could’ve and would’ve, more than one letter has been omitted.
This will establish good habits and alert you to the role of the apostrophe.
2. Use the apostrophe to show possession
- We went to Marmaduke’s restaurant for dinner. (Marmaduke owns the restaurant; it is the restaurant of Marmaduke.)
Notice how the apostrophe comes at the end of the noun (Marmaduke) and is accompanied by the letter ‘s’ – a bit like a chaperone.
- We knew whom to blame for the missing pie; there was cream all over the dog’s whiskers!
We’re referring to only one dog and it owns the whiskers (and the pie and a very satisfied smile, no doubt).
Some words sound awkward when an apostrophe ‘s’ is added:
- Jesus’s disciples.
The accepted form here is to just use the ‘s’ apostrophe:
- Jesus’ disciples.
N.B. This only applies to names of Biblical or historical significance e.g. Jesus, Moses, Zeus, Demosthenes, Ramses, the rest of us whack in the apostrophe and add an ‘s.’
Moses’ followers, Zeus’ priests, Demosthenes’ teachings, Ramses’ pyramid
Others don’t have the same clumsy sound:
- The princess’s chair.
The important thing is to be consistent in your use of the form – nothing is written in stone!
3. Using the apostrophe with plural nouns
Confusion arises when the apostrophe is used with a plural noun.
At the zoo, the children were most interested in seeing the lions’ den.
More than one lion owns the den, so we add the apostrophe after the ‘s’ (this is the den of the lions).
So, the general rule is:
- if there’s one owner – add an apostrophe and then ‘s’
- if there are two or more owners – add ‘s’ then an apostrophe.
4. Exceptions to the rules about apostrophes
However, (and of course you’re not surprised to hear this, are you?), there are exceptions to this rule.
For words which form their plural by changing internal letters (instead of adding ‘s’), the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’.
- It was the children’s turn to wash up.
Children is already a plural word, so we don’t need to make it doubly plural by adding ‘s’ apostrophe; however, we do need to indicate the idea of ownership, so we use apostrophe ‘s’.
Some other words which follow this rule are: men, women, people.
5. How to use the apostrophe with joint possession
When you have ‘joint possession’ – when two or more people (or subjects) own one item and both (or all) of their names are mentioned, the apostrophe is applied only to the second (or last) name.
- We had coffee at Ermintrude and Marmaduke’s mansion.
When you’re using names that end in -S, you follow the same rules as with any other name and add apostrophe S.
- Chris’s car
- Bridget Jones’s Diary
Plural names also follow the same rules:
- Bill Thomas’s car
- the Thomases’ new house (add -es to names that end in S to indicate plural form).
In case it’s a separate possession rather than a joint one, use the possessive form for both nouns:
- Cecile’s and Jona’s bags are inside the room. (They own two different bags, instead of sharing one.)
6. Using it with expressions of time
The apostrophe is also used with many expressions of time (to show that the time period owns the other noun):
- an hour’s time
- a year’s holiday
7. When not to use the apostrophe
BUT notice that we do not use the apostrophe with possessive pronouns (remember, these are the little guys who step in and lend a paw to nouns).
- After dinner at Marmaduke’s restaurant, we went back to his place for coffee.
- The bird’s feathers were ruffled. (The bird owns the feathers.)
- The bird ruffled its feathers. (The feathers are owned by the bird, but the pronoun its is being used instead of the noun, so there is NO apostrophe.)
You’ll see it’s and its used incorrectly nearly every single day and in places where it should never happen. An easy way to make sure you never confuse the two is to ask yourself (do this quietly, you don’t want to alarm those around you), if the words it is can be substituted in the sentence – if the answer is yes, then whack in the old apostrophe.
If the answer is no, then sit on your hands so you won’t be tempted.
- The bird ruffled its (it is?) feathers. (NO)
- It’s (it is?) a lovely day. (YES)
Tips For Using It Correctly
To summarise, here is a good way to check if you need an apostrophe – for future reference:
If you can substitute the use of “of” then you use the apostrophe.
- This is Marmaduke’s house. It is the house of Marmaduke.
- The children’s mother phoned. The mother of the children phoned.
- Three months’ work. The work of three months.
We hope this cleared the confusion up. If you’re confused about more grammatical issues, you can read more about them here.