For me, a product of the old school system and a grammar nerd to boot, “the dreaded apostrophe” is the title I prefer to give this troublesome bit of punctuation.
Used precisely, as it was designed to be used, it gives clarity to a piece of writing. But used flamboyantly, here there and everywhere, it has advocates of correct usage tearing out their hair and some of us, not least myself, refusing to eat lunch in venues where the menu is overpopulated with apostrophes.
How, then, should it be used correctly? Here are the four key categories.
If something belongs to someone or something, then the apostrophe is called for.
If a kid has some books, then the kid’s books will clearly express that.
If you want to give possession to a plural word that ends in an "s", then the apostrophe goes at the end of the word: the kids’ books.
If it is a possessive plural name, then put the apostrophe at the end as well: the Thompsons’ books.
Do not use an apostrophe if there is no possession involved. Writing that the kid’s went to the library to get some books might reduce their teachers to despair.
Contractions are where two words are joined together to give a more colloquial flow to a piece of writing. Combine the pair of words and use an apostrophe to show the words have been contracted.
Remember that the apostrophe goes in place of the missing letters:
- do not becomes don’t
- could not becomes couldn’t
- they have becomes they’ve
Be careful with the negative forms of will and shall. Here, not is still contracted to n’t, but there are additional spelling changes in the word:
- will not becomes won’t
- shall not becomes shan’t
If you just want to make a word into a plural, do not use an apostrophe. Grammar pedants around the world cringe when they see signs like this:
It should just be "Apples for Sale". This is the same for all plurals:
- I like cats and dogs.
- Can I have three tickets, please?
- Mangoes are great, but pineapples are better.
As we have seen in the Possession section above, if something belongs to a plural noun then the possessive apostrophe goes at the end:
- She had two cats and a dog. The dog was short-haired but the cats’ fur was everywhere.
4. It’s a bit different with "its"
When it comes to it, it is, its, and it’s, the real difficulties with apostrophes rear their heads.
Here, things work slightly differently. The apostrophe is still needed when there is a contraction:
- It is a lovely day becomes It’s a lovely day.
But if there is no contraction, there is no apostrophe, even if there is possession:
- The bullet hit its target.
Put simply, it’s always means it is. Learn more about this particular pesky rule in our It’s vs. Its article.
Where is the most annoying place that you have seen an apostrophe? Tell us in the comments below.