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How to use apostrophes in your writing

Posted on April 20, 2023

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What does an apostrophe look like?

The apostrophe is the same punctuation mark as a closing single quotation mark.

  • this is an apostrophe ’

Make sure that you use the correct punctuation mark!

When an apostrophe comes at the beginning of a word, many word processing programs assume the writer meant to type an opening single quotation mark.

What does an apostrophe do?

The apostrophe has three uses.

  1. to form contractions

  2. to indicate possession

  3. to form certain plurals when clarity is needed

 

Contracted ’s vs possessive ’s

Notice that ’s can have two meanings. It can be a contraction of is or has, e.g. Susan’s there (Susan is there) or Susan’s been late twice this month (Susan has been late twice this month). Or it can show possession (I borrowed Susan’s pencil).

 

1. Using the apostrophe to form contractions

A contraction is a combinations of two or more words. When a letter or letters in a word are omitted, an apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter. An apostrophe can be used to indicate that a letter is missing at the beginning of a word (because – ’cause), in the middle of a word (madam – ma’am) and at the end of a word (doing – doin’).

Affirmative contractions (to confirm a piece of information)

  • I’m – I am

  • she’ll – she will

  • they’ve – they have

  • who’d – who would or who had

Negative contractions

  • aren’t – are not

  • can’t – cannot or can not

  • haven’t – have not

  • mustn’t’ve – must not have

Past modal contractions (to imagine a different past scenario)

  • could’ve – could have

  • should’ve – should have

  • would’ve – would have

Other contractions

  • ’cause (or cos) – because

  • g’day – good day

  • ma’am – madam

  • o’clock – of the clock

  • ’tis – it is

  • y’all – you all

  • ’80s – 1980s (apostrophes can be used to indicate missing numerals, too)

Contractions in fiction

Start- and end-of-word letter omissions are frequently used in fiction dialogue to indicate informal speech or accents.

Contractions in formal writing

It’s not wrong to use contractions in formal writing, but it’s probably best to use them sparingly as they will make your writing sound informal. Avoid using contractions that are made up of more than two words in formal writing, though.

Contractions – when not to use an apostrophe

Don’t use an apostrophe in contractions accepted as words in their own right. These are called clipped forms.

  • bra – brassiere

  • flu – influenza

  • gym –gymnasium

  • maths (UK) or math (US) – mathematics

  • phone – telephone

 

2. Using the apostrophe to indicate possession

Apostrophes are used to show that one thing belongs to another thing.

Possessive of singular nouns and indefinite pronouns

Use ’s to form the possessive of singular nouns and indefinite pronouns (e.g. something, everyone) that do not end in s.

  • everyone’s favourite meal

  • Olivia’s suitcase

  • Max’s fiancée

  • David Ashby’s football (the football belonging to David Ashby)

For singular nouns ending in an s, x or z sound, the s can be omitted if it is difficult to pronounce.

  • Mr Peters’ car (the car belonging to Mr Peters)

  • Sarah Hastings’ laptop (the laptop belonging to Sarah Hastings)

  • for goodness’ sake

 

Possessive of plural nouns

Use ’s for plural nouns that do not end in s.

  • people’s opinions

  • women’s clothing

 

Use just the apostrophe for plural nouns ending in s.

  • other countries’ prison systems

  • two weeks’ notice

  • for old times’ sake

  • the buses’ timetables

 

Possessive of plural family names (surnames)

  • the Seymours’ house (the house belonging to the Seymour family)

  • the Joneses’ house (the house belonging to the Jones family)

Shared vs independent possessives

When two or more nouns share possession of something, only the last noun takes ’s.

  • Jack and Laura’s dog (the dog belongs to both Jack and Laura)

But when each noun possesses something independently, each noun takes ’s.

  • Simon’s and Kate’s universities (Simon and Kate attend different universities)

 

Possession – when not to use an apostrophe

Don’t use an apostrophe with the possessive pronouns hers, its, ours, yours and theirs.

  • it’s – contraction of it is or it has

  • its – (shows possession) belonging to or associated with a thing previously mentioned or easily identified

     E.g. the dog ate its food.

3. Using the apostrophe to form plurals when clarity is needed

Use an apostrophe to make letters and numbers plural when clarity is needed.

  • mind your p’s and q’s

  • dot the i’s and cross the t’s

  • there should be two 5’s in that telephone number

 

Pluralising dates

  • I grew up in the 1980s (UK usage – no apostrophe)

  • I grew up in the 1980’s (US usage)

 

Plural nouns – when not to use an apostrophe

Don’t use an apostrophe when forming the plural of names, abbreviations, numbers and words not usually used as nouns (known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe).

  • apples and pears, not apple’s and pear’s

  • MOTs, not MOT’s

  • CDs, not CD’s

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