Apostrophes – how to use them

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Apostrophes – definition

apostrophes Apostrophes are shown by a raised comma — like this ( ' ).

redbtn Apostrophes are used to show possession and to punctuate contractions.


Examples

Possession– My mother’s house – The girl’s bicycle

The house belongs to my mother – The bicycle belongs to the girl

Contractions– There’s nobody here – Where’s Freddy?

There is nobody here – Where is Freddy?


Use

redbtn We can write The tail of the dog or The dog’s tail. This is possession – when something belongs to someone or something.

redbtn We can also write It is a lovely day or It’s a lovely day. This is contraction – when two words are merged. The apostrophe is used to denote the missing letter.

redbtn NB! Many people have problems with the apostrophe. [You’re not alone.] Read on!

Possession

redbtn When the possessor is single we indicate possession by using an apostrophe followed by the letter s:

The man’s coat
my sister’s hat

redbtn When the possessors are plural, the apostrophe is placed after the final s:

The girls’ bicycles
my cousins’ parents

redbtn When names end with the letter ‘s’, either use is acceptable:

James’ wife or
James’s wife

redbtn [It is often said that the choice between the two should be made on how the word is pronounced.]

redbtn The apostrophe is never used with possessive pronouns:

hishersitsoursyourstheirs

redbtn But it is used with one: One must do one’s best.

redbtn Note that the apostrophe is not required where a word has been formed by omitting its first part:

bus – not – ‘bus [from omnibus]

phone – not – ‘phone [from telephone]

redbtn No apostrophe is required in the plural form of numbers and dates:

in the 1920s
the roaring twenties

Contractions

redbtn In formal writing we would write She has always loved him, but when speaking we would probably say She’s always loved him. The apostrophe is used to indicate the missing letters (or sounds).

I’m (I am)    He’s (He is)    You’re (You are)

redbtn Notice the difference between it’s (it is) and its (belonging to it).

redbtn NB! There is no such thing as its’

redbtn The use of contractions tends to make writing less formal.

redbtn It is just possible that the apostrophe will be the next linguistic feature to disappear from common use.

redbtn It causes lots of problems, and in most cases the context would make the meaning clear even if it were missing.

redbtn It is in fact a relic from the days when English was an inflected language. This may be a reason for the problems, and it would form some justification for its disappearance.

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© Roy Johnson 2003


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56 Responses to “Apostrophes – how to use them”

  1. abi smith says:

    NB: you use apostrophes in your header to indicate ‘quotation’ but make no reference to this usage in your text. Der.

  2. mantex says:

    In such cases the raised comma is being used to show quotation. It is not functioning as an apostrophe.

    As a matter of fact, they are not strictly necessary in the case of ‘quotation’ and ‘possession’ – so I am going to remove them and show those terms in italics.

    Thanks for the observation.

  3. Blaise says:

    Mantex, who cares if they are not strictly necessary; one of the most beautiful things about languages (written or spoken) is the ability to represent the same thing in different ways and the ability of the same representation to mean different things.

    Without this there would be no jokes – therefore no fun – and i for one, would kill myself.

  4. mantex says:

    I appalud your egalitarian sentiment, but the fact is that the apostrophe causes many people problems. And in fact it need not do so – because without it, we would be no worse off. It’s dificult to find cases where its absence would be problemmatic. Some business copmanies – Barclays Bank for instance – have already dropped it.

    Don’t kill yourself. Keep having fun. Maybe stop using them – and see what happens?

  5. sarah fryer says:

    Please help! Where would the apostrophe go on a poster advertising a talent show at our school which is called St. Swithun’s School? We want to call the show ‘St. Swithun’s Got Talent’ meaning St.Swithun’s School HAS got Talent! Should it be St Swithun’s Got Talent or St. Swithuns’ got Talent or with 2 apostrophes, one for the possession and one for the contraction?

  6. mantex says:

    Well Sarah, that’s a very good example of the difficulties this old item of English language leads us in to. I would say you have two options. The first is to use “St Swithin’s Got Talent”: everybody would understand what was meant. The second (if you want to appease any pedants in advance) is to use “St Swithun’s has Got Talent”, which is grammatically correct, but a bit clumsy.

    There is no such thing as a double apostrophe – so you can forget that option.

    Note that this is also a good exmple of how the disappearance of the apostrophe would make no difference at all. “St Swithuns Got Talent” is perfectly comprehensible and unambiguous.

    I didn’t realise that there was a Saint Swithun, as well as a Saint Swithin.

    Also note that you do not need a full stop after St (the contraction of Saint).

  7. heidi says:

    Are there any differences between ‘The fruits’ war’ and ‘the fruits war’?

  8. mantex says:

    I imagine you are thinking of the expression ‘the fruits OF war’ – which does not require an apostrophe. That’s because the possession is supplied by ‘of’.

    However – to take your question literally:

    ‘The fruits’ war’ means the war belonging to the fruits.

    ‘the fruits war’ means a war concerning fruits, as distinct from one concerning vegetables. In other words, the term ‘fruits’ is being used as an adjective.

    Hope that helps.

  9. ms_jane says:

    help!

    For some reason I always struggle with the use of the apostrophe after time periods. Words like days / years. etc.

    I’m writing my CV at the moment and want to say ‘I have eight year’s experience in …..’

    Is the use of the apostrophe above correct? Because the time period possesses the experience? or should it be years’ (because multiple years possess the experience) Or am I completely over thinking this and the apostrophe is not necessary as the years don’t possess anything at all?

    not the the company I’m sending it to will know or give a toss, but I just want to get it right 🙂

  10. mantex says:

    That’s an interesting case you raise here Jane.

    I would say that a) the years are clearly plural, and b) the term ‘experience’ contains its own notion of possession. Therefore no apostrophe is required.

    An equivalent would be an expression such as ‘in five years time I will be twenty-nine’.

    However, a colleague to whom I posed this example replied as follows

    It’s very simple 🙂 ‘I have eight years’ experience’. Do the reversing trick and you get ‘I have the experience of eight years’ .

    It’s another example supporting the idea that it is difficult to find examples where the apostrophe supplies clarity or removes ambiguity. In other words – we could do without it.

    Cheers

  11. Wanderlust AU says:

    How would an apostrophe be used in the case of what I expect could be called “multiple posession”:

    • Bob’s and Joe’s house;
    • Bob’ and Joe’s house; or
    • Bob and Joe’s house?

    Just for the record, I believe the second answer to be the correct answer – please delete this line, should I be incorrect!! 😉

    Ta…

  12. mantex says:

    As a matter of fact, the first and third are both OK (with the tird the more elegant option) – but the second is not.

    There could be no such thing as Bob’

    It might help to know that the apostrophe replaces what was once a letter ‘e’.

    In old English it would have been written ‘Bobes and Joees house’.

  13. Wanderlust AU says:

    Thank you Mantex.

    As the apostrophe replaces what would have been a letter ‘e’ in old English, how is it appropriate that such words as “Joe’s” have an apostrophe? Is this a commonplace, but nevertheless technically incorrect, use?

  14. mantex says:

    I refer the right honourable gentleman to the answer given above. I don’t speak Old English, but it would have been written Joees.

  15. Hiyaaa says:

    I have to design a website for a imaginary band called The Shakes,would I have an apostrophe so it is spelt The Shake’s because it’s their band or would it just be The Shakes cause it’s a name?

  16. mantex says:

    If the band’s name is “The Shakes” (that is, more than one shake – as in ‘the shakes’ you get after drinking too much)

    then you don’t need an apostrophe – because it’s a plural – so it’s ‘The Shakes’

  17. randomguy says:

    Where would the apostrophe go in “The farmers chicken coop”

  18. mantex says:

    If there is only one farmer, it’s “The farmer’s chicken coop”.

    If there is more than one farmer, it’s “The farmers’ chicken coop”.

    Hope that helps.

  19. Caz says:

    Where would the apostrophe go in “Suzanne and Stephens contributions were a …” ?

  20. mantex says:

    “Suzanne and Stephen’s contributions were a …”

    You could also write “Suzanne’s and Stephen’s contributions were”

    But your version treats ‘Suzanne and Stephen’ as a single unit – which is slightly neater.

  21. Russeem says:

    i think we don’t use ‘ with things

    EX: 1- should we say company employee or company’s employee

    2- department members or department’s members.
    3- car owner or car’s owner.

    i think the first choice is right…

    Can anybody confirm???

  22. mantex says:

    You are quite right that “Company’s employee” and “car’s owner” are correct use of the apostrophe.

    But “the car’s windscreen” would be correct

    as would “car owners’ certificates”

  23. radwa says:

    i’ve read in a book those two sentences: (the company’s mail) and (the company website).
    I would like to know why they put an apostrophe in the first sentence and didnt put one in the second. thanks alot

  24. mantex says:

    In the first case it’s a possessive – the mail belonging to the company. In the second it’s an adjective – the company website as distinct from some other website. However, it would be perfectly possible to have ‘the company’s website’ – that is, the website belonging to the company.

  25. amy says:

    hi,I know this is a daft question,but would I need to use a apostrophe for colour’s ?

  26. mantex says:

    I can think of the following instance where this might apply:

    ‘the colour’s effect is dramatic’

    That is, the effect of the [single] colour is dramatic

  27. Thompson says:

    Hello,

    Teachers Race or Teachers’ Race? In relation to running, not background.
    Many thanks.

  28. mantex says:

    Teacher’s Race = a race for one teacher [unlikely]
    Teachers’ Race = a race for a a number of teachers

  29. sue fells says:

    We have changed the name of our showroom at work to be the headmistress’ office – should this be the headmistress’s office. Please help!

  30. mantex says:

    It is often said that the solution to this problem lies in the way the word is spoken. So – if you say “headmistress-EZ’ office” – then it should be spelled “headmistress’s office”. Just be glad there’s only one headmistress – otherwise you would have a serious case of the possessive plural 🙂

  31. David says:

    How about where a word is the same in both the singular and plural – for example sheep.
    A sheep’s brain – singular. Two sheep with two brains – plural. Two sheep’s or sheeps’ brains? I would go for the former.

  32. mantex says:

    So would I 🙂

  33. chris says:

    May I know that is it possible to use the sun’s rays or the rays of the sun? (as I know ‘s or ‘ can be only used in living things, is it correct?)& I am quite confused that are plants considered as living things? Can we say the flower’s leaf?
    Thanks a lot!

  34. mantex says:

    Yes – the apostrophe applies to objects and things, as well as people. So – the sun’s rays, the flower’s leaf, the cat’s tail, and the car’s headlamps are all correct usage.

  35. urmi says:

    Hi if I was writing learners comments where would the apostrophe be placed?

    Mnay thanks

  36. mantex says:

    If there was a single learner, it would be – the learner’s comments.

    If there were several learners, it would be – the learners’ comments.

  37. hk says:

    For the sentence ‘the road of the world is bright’, would the sentence ‘the road of the world’s bright’ be acceptable? It’s a line from my school song and the second option just sounds a bit strange.

  38. mantex says:

    The second version sounds and looks fairly sloppy to me. The first version both looks and sounds correct.

  39. Michele says:

    Physios beat back pain or Physio’s beat back pain? I would go with the first option, but is the second valid as the ‘therapist’ part is missing??

  40. mantex says:

    Physios beat back pain – because it’s a plural. The second option is not valid, because there is no possession.

  41. Fiona says:

    The Embroiderer’s Guild have given out two documents headed – Chairmans’ Play Day and Chairmens’ Play Day. I feel that the second of these sounds right, but maybe the first is also correct if the plural of chairman is chairmans.

  42. mantex says:

    Chairman’s Play Day – means that there is just ONE chairman. If there are several chairmen, then it becomes Chairmen’s Play Day.

  43. Neil McNicholas says:

    My knowledge of punctuation is generally pretty good, but in terms of the apostrophe, what is the correct form if I want to refer to the family, eg. the Browns when the family name ends in an “s”, eg. Ross?

  44. mantex says:

    This is a difficult case. It’s often said that this should be decided by the way the name is pronounced in the sentence. So using your example, we would write “We’re going to the Browns’ party” and “We’ve just received an invitation to the Ross’s party”.

  45. Yakima w. says:

    I have a (‘) in my daughters name. her name is Ti’yanna. I was wondering if this was still considered a apostrophe.

  46. mantex says:

    In this case there might be two reasons for the apostrophe.

    It could denote a missing letter, as in the surname O’Brien.

    Or it might be a glottal stop, as in the Arabic word Qur’an.

    But it appears in your daughter’s name – not your daughters name 🙂

  47. Yakima w. says:

    Ok… So it’s a glottal stop then. Lol… And its not considered an accent symbol? Correct? Some people confuse me with those 2 in names.

  48. mantex says:

    That would depend upon the language. The apostrophe is used for contractions, accent symbols, and glottal stops. What language does your daughter’s name come from?

  49. Molly Rider says:

    Thank you, the article and the discussion have been HUGELY helpful!
    I do have a question about the following sentence. I’m wondering if the word ‘hoped’ shows possession, or if I would need to add an apostrophe to the word ‘kids’. Thanks! 🙂

    Us kids hoped that…
    Us kids’ hoped that…

    Thanks again!

  50. mantex says:

    Hi Molly – the word ‘kids’ here is a PLURAL, not a possessive.

    So – no apostrophe is required.

    But in standard English it should be “We kids hoped that …”

  51. James says:

    Thanks for your article but what would the correct use of an apostrophe be here:

    Meyers’ determination…

    or Meyers’s determination…

    Many thanks!

  52. mantex says:

    When proper names end in -s or -es, it is often said that the punctuation of the possessive case should be determined by how the word is pronounced.

    So is you would say MyerZ determination, it would be Myers’ determination.

    And if you said MyersEZ determination, it would be Myers’s determination.

    Personally, I would go with the first.

  53. Jawwaad Hussain says:

    Right, it seems an odd question, but bear with me. The term ‘G’ is an abbreviation of ‘Gangster’, right? So would I put an apostrophe after ‘G’ if I was describing something belong to a G? Or would that depend entirely on whether or not I put an apostrophe after ‘G’ to show that it’s an abbreviation?

  54. mantex says:

    Once something is an abbreviation, it behaves in the same way as if it were still the somplete word.

    So, you would write “The G’s gun was still smoking”.

    You don’t need to put an apostrophe after the G to show it’s an abbreviation.

    And note that no apostrophe is necessary when showing plurals. So you would write

    “All the Gs were wearing designer suits.”

  55. Liam says:

    Would you use an apostrophe one phone? my friend said “My phone’s messing up” and it doesn’t look right to me.

  56. Roy Johnson says:

    The word ‘phone’ is an abbreviation of ‘telephone’ – in the same way that ‘bus’ is an abbreviation of ‘autobus’. But these abbreviations are now accepted as words in their own right. Therefore, your friend is right. “My phone’s messing up” uses the apostrophe to show a contraction of “My phone is messing up”.

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