How To Use Apostrophes Properly

How To Use Apostrophes Properly

Of all the grammar mistakes students make, use of apostrophes is the most common. Despite a degree education, studies show that graduates are twice as likely to make grammar mistakes on important documents than those who didn't go to university.

Modern means of communication are eroding our everyday use of grammar, which can be awkward at best and cost you a job at worst.

Have you ever sent someone a message that was intended to be read one way, but the recipient read it a different way? That is why learning how to use grammar correctly is so important.

What is an Apostrophe?

An apostrophe (') is a character that serves two functions:

1. Apostrophes show possession – Dave's pint

2. Apostrophes show where letters have been removed for a contraction – Let's go!

Apostrophes make possessives much easier and far less wordier. They allow you to say things like: "Dave's pint was spilled down Donna's dress" easily.

Without an apostrophe, the only way to tell who owns the pint and dress is to say: "The pint that belonged to Dave was spilled down the dress that Donna was wearing."

To show the possession without a possessive apostrophe, you need another verb (belong and wear in this case).

Apostrophes also demonstrate contractions. They allow you to easily understand that when you say won't, you mean will not. You aren't saying wont (a person's customary behaviour).

So, as confusing as they seem, apostrophes are designed to remove confusion.

Still confused? Read on!

Rules for Possessive Apostrophes

When to use a possessive apostrophe

Many university essay guidelines have nothing to say on the subject of possessive apostrophes. But if yours do, follow those guidelines.

On the other hand, it is not advised to remove possessive apostrophes in order to pad out your word count. As you can see in the example above, it just doesn't read naturally and your work will draw criticism.

Here are the 3 rules of possessive apostrophes:

1. Use an apostrophe + s ('s) to show that one person/thing owns or is a member of something.

Dave's pint

Donna's dress

For names that end in "s", it is acceptable to add apostrophe + s. You can also choose to just use an apostrophe. Both ways create a possessive form, but the key is to be consistent. Whichever version you choose to use, maintain that choice throughout your work, across all names.

Thomas's collection of records

Thomas' last essay of the year

So, if you're talking about Thomas's records and Jesus's teachings in the same essay, stay consistent. Do not deviate to Jesus' for the variety.

2. Use an apostrophe after the "s" at the end of a plural noun to show possession for more than one thing or person.

Leaving your parents' house for good

The Smiths' music is great

There is no need to add an "s" to a plural possessive noun.

3. If a plural noun doesn't end in "s," add an apostrophe + "s" to create the possessive form.

The team's big night out

If a plural noun doesn't have an "s" on the end, add one after your apostrophe.

Remember: Only use a possessive apostrophe when a thing in a sentence owns something or is a member of something.

Common mistakes:

We have 4 iPad's for sale'

Back in the 1940's

The Aztecs ritual's were a cornerstone of the culture

Apostrophes & Contractions

When you combine two words and take out some letters, you make a contraction. If you do, use an apostrophe to replace the words.

I won't touch that

They'll be up all night

We've been in the library

I can't wait all day

These are the most common uses for apostrophes and most people know how to use them in contractions. University course style guides will tell you whether or not contractions are allowed. Refer to your course guidelines first, because the use of contractions is a purely stylistic decision, unlike possessive apostrophes, which have hard and fast rules.

For more help on writing first class essays, check out our Advice & Guidance section.