But That’s Not Right… 5 Tips on the Use of the Apostrophe

I am pernickety. Generally everywhere, but definitely when it comes to language and grammar, and, oh, the irritating comma and apostrophe.

Actually, I quite like the apostrophe. I personally don’t find it irritating at all. I just find it irritating that other people don’t know how to use it properly. Unlike the comma, whose use is subjective and down to style in many circumstances, the apostrophe just is; it’s either right or it’s not right.

As a proofreader there is a constant assault on my brain by misused apostrophes. And, dare I admit, I always have to think about “its” in its possessive form? Especially when my spell check insists on inserting an apostrophe! I have enough trouble with it already. I don’t need a machine confusing me even more.

The apostrophe, in the main, does one of two things. It lets us know who something belongs to, or it shows us that there are missing letters.  So on that basis, a few seconds of thought can help you decide if you need an apostrophe or not.

  • Tip 1 – Repeat the sentence in your head without any missing letters. If you have to create  extra letters or words, then there should be an apostrophe. If not, don’t put it in.

I won’t go the fair to get fish and chip’s.
I will not go to the fair to get fish and chips.

(Not: “fish and chip’s.” No extra word there, just more than one chip!)

  • Tip 2 – Turn the sentence around so that the possessive apostrophe isn’t required.

This is John’s scarf.
This scarf belongs to John.

Definitely needs an apostrophe.

  • Tip 3 – Words that end in “s” can be tricky in the possessive. But the same rules apply as in Tip 2. No one will pick you up for using too many “s”s, but they will pick you up if you put the apostrophe in the wrong place or not at all.

Here is James’s apple.
This apple belongs to James.

This is the series’s last episode. Or, this is the series’ last episode.
This is the last episode in the series.

It is quite acceptable to miss the second “s”. So one apostrophe is then doing both: a missing letter and showing possession. Clever little apostrophe.

  • Tip 4 – If in doubt, look it up. Don’t guess. It takes seconds these days to check the internet if you really can’t be bothered to dig out a dictionary. Just check that several sites agree, as you might pick the one who got it wrong. And that wouldn’t be good at all.
  • Tip 5 – “Its” and “it’s”, “who’s” and “whose”. They are confusing because, as in Tip 2 above, we expect an apostrophe to show possession. But these are the lovely exceptions to the rule. The best thing to do is ask yourself the question: is it who is or who has? If yes, then use the apostrophe.

…whose use is subjective and down to style (me above, about the comma).
Who’s making all that noise?

…about “its” in its possessive form (me above again, confessing my lapses).
It’s about time you got here.

Learn them. Just learn them. Get it into your head how each one works and just make sure you write it right. And even then, a proofreader is your friend. Because there’ll always be people like me around, just waiting to tell you: ‘But that’s not right…’