The art of the apostrophe: getting it right every time

The art of the apostrophe – an overly grand title for a mere piece of punctuation? Perhaps. However, judging by its (mis)usage, the apostrophe does appear to be something of an art form.

Misuse of the apostrophe is one of the most common, and irksome, errors made in written English. Common because you see it in shop windows, in advertising, even in novels; irksome because it really shouldn’t be that hard to get it right.

Read on to find out the two simple rules that you need to know about apostrophes so that you don’t fall into the catastrophic apostrophic trap.

Why the apostrophe is actually a piece of cake

Ever found yourself wondering whether to write “its” or “it’s”, “yours” or “your’s”, “their” or “they’re”?

The apostrophe can be a tricky little blighter – it can change the meaning of a sentence in a jiffy: “Giant kid’s playground” sounds considerably weirder than “Giant kids’ playground” (thanks to Lynne Truss for that one).

But fear not, there are two simple rules that will sort out almost all confusion regarding the apostrophe. Let’s get these straight first and then we can take a look at those things we all love: the exceptions. Or, in this case, the reason the apostrophe is the gift that just keeps giving.

apostrophe1 LEaF Translations

How to use the apostrophe: the two rules you need to know

Broadly speaking, the apostrophe has two main functions:

Rule #1: To indicate possession
Rule #2: To replace missing letters

Rule #1 refers to the use of the apostrophe in phrases like “Steven’s dog”, “Jeremy’s lies”, “the children’s playground”. Basically, if you are adding an S because you are talking about possession, it needs to be preceded by an apostrophe. Got that?

One more minor point regarding Rule #1 – if the possessor already ends in S due to it being a plural, the apostrophe goes after the S not before. Spot the difference: “the chicken’s hut” and “the chickens’ hut”. In the former the hut belongs to just one chicken; in the latter, the hut is shared by multiple chickens. This is an important distinction to make; it also explains why “Ladie’s night” is so wrong.

One final point on this, as we are doing so well: If the possessor’s name ends in S you may or may not add another S after the apostrophe – it is a matter of personal preference. Thus, it is acceptable to write both “Boris’ rubbish” and “Boris’s rubbish”.

Rule #2 is why we have an apostrophe in “you’re” (you+are), “it’s” (it+is) and “there’s” (there+is”). If there are letters missing in the word, stick in an apostrophe. Pleasingly, it also means you can write “should’ve”, “would’ve”, “could’ve”… take note, Beverley Knight.

Perhaps the most common apostrophe error is the confusion between “it’s” and “its”. This is quite simple to resolve. If you mean “it is” then stick an apostrophe in it. If you don’t, then leave the apostrophe well alone.

its frame LEaF Translations

Another common mistake is getting “your” and “you’re” mixed up. If you mean “you are”, then you’re welcome to use an apostrophe. If your intention is to write about your excellent grammar, there is simply no need for an apostrophe.

So, to recap: The apostrophe is used to indicate possession, as in “the bird’s nest”, and to replace missing letters, as in “who’s that guy?” All very simple you see. And now we’ve got that mastered, there are a few more easy peasy rules coming your way.

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Other uses of the apostrophe that you might like to consider

My earlier claim that the apostrophe has two main functions was perhaps slightly disingenuous – it actually has eight. But the other six are so straightforward they hardly bear thinking about. They are as follows:

  • To indicate time or quantity, as in “one day’s time”, “two weeks’ time” and “ten acres’ worth”
  • To indicate missing numbers in dates: “the summer of ‘69”
  • To indicate non-standard English, often used in dialogue to denote strange dialect
  • To indicate the plurals of letters, such as “how many z’s are there in pizzazz?” (A mighty fine question, answers on a postcard, please!)
  • To indicate the plurals of words, e.g. “what’s with all the but’s and maybe’s?” (Please note, this does not give you free rein to add an apostrophe before every plural S. An apostrophe is only used in this very limited sense when the word being pluralised is not normally a noun. “What’s with all the apostrophe’s?” is always going to be wrong because apostrophe is a noun, like chicken, field, lesson, hat, house and any other object you can think of. These words do not need an apostrophe to indicate the plural!)
  • Used in Irish names like O’Neill

Stop press, exceptions coming right up

A rule just isn’t a rule without exceptions. Our good, old friend Rule #1 tells you that if you are talking about possession, you need to whap in an apostrophe. This is not entirely true. If the word already indicates possession – i.e. is a possessive pronoun – then you don’t need an apostrophe as well. That would be the grammatical equivalent of over-egging the pudding.

Say what, you don’t know what a possessive pronoun is? You are not alone my friend. Here comes the final lesson for the day: Possessive pronouns are words like “mine”, “ours”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”, “theirs” and “its” (not to be confused with “it’s”! This means “it is”. If you have forgotten this already, please go back to the top and start again!).

Thus, for example, you don’t write “Our’s is far better than your’s”. Firstly because it is slightly rude, but mainly because it is grammatically incorrect. It should be “Ours is far better than yours”. Similarly, “it’s hers not theirs” is what you should be aiming for if you wish to write correct English. 

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Nailed it

So there you have it – you are now a master of the apostrophe. Want to learn more? The Art of the Apostrophe is just one part of The Grammaticals. Follow LEaF on Facebook and/or Twitter to be the first to know when the next part comes out.

You’ll be an English grammar whizz in no time!

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Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.