• 3-minute read
  • 18th March 2015

How to Use Apostrophes

Apostrophes are the bane of many proofreaders’ lives, simply because they are misused so often. Many times, we have sneaked out in the middle of the night with a pot of white paint and doctored misspelled signs around town.

To ‘normal’ people, however, apostrophes can be confusing. If you need help with your apostrophe usage, read on to find out when they’re required.

Possessive Apostrophes

You should add an apostrophe plus an ‘s’ to the end of a word to indicate that something belongs to someone or something. Usually, this will be a name:

‘This is Toby’s hand grenade,’ said Sophie.

Here, we add an apostrophe plus ‘s’ to Toby to show that the hand grenade belongs to him.

However, the same applies when referring to something that belongs to a thing rather than a person. For instance, we might say that:

My dog’s face is pleasingly fuzzy.

In this case, adding an apostrophe plus ‘s’ to ‘dog’ shows that the speaker is referring to the face of her dog.

When a word already ends in an ‘s’, opinion differs over whether you need to add an extra ‘s’ as well as an apostrophe. As such, both of the following are acceptable in some situations:

One ‘s’: I am wearing Socrates’ toga.

An extra ‘s’: I am wearing Socrates’s toga.

Make sure to check your style guide if you’re writing an essay, since some universities have a preferred approach. If the style guide doesn’t give specific advice, just pick one approach and use it consistently throughout your work.

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The other key situation in which an apostrophe is required is when forming a contraction. These are words that combine two other words in shortened form, with an apostrophe added to show that letters have been left out:

‘It isn’t my hand grenade,’ said Toby.

In this example, the word ‘isn’t’ is short for ‘is not’. The apostrophe shows that an ‘o’ has been ommited when the words were combined.

Generally speaking, contractions aren’t (or ‘are not’, if you prefer) considered very formal, so you shouldn’t (or ‘should not’) use them in academic work.

You Should Not Use An Apostrophe When…

People sometimes add an apostrophe when forming a plural, since plurals often end in an ‘s’, making them look similar to possessives. However, doing this is incorrect:

Toby threw his hand grenade at the dogs in the park. – Correct

Toby threw his hand grenade at the dog’s in the park. – Incorrect

Another exception to keep in mind is that possessive determiners don’t require an apostrophe, even though these often end in an ‘s’ (e.g. ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘yours’). The most common mistake people make here is adding an apostrophe to ‘its’ (i.e. belonging to it), since they confuse it with the contraction ‘it’s’ (i.e. short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’):

One dog lost its legs entirely. – Correct

One dog lost it’s legs entirely. – Incorrect

Keep these rules in mind and you should be able to avoid misplacing any apostrophes. Good luck!

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