Mistake No. 26: The Apostrophe

Few will think badly of you if you don’t know, say, whether it’s St James’s Park or St James’ Park, but if you write something like “its important to get word’s right” you’re inviting derision. Apostrophe howlers like this will make any decent editor wince. Granted, perhaps she’ll think “Oh, it’s all right – we’ve got a sub-editor to sort it out”, but at best it’ll be distracting and off-putting, and at worst she’ll wonder whether you care about the quality and accuracy of the rest of your work, given you obviously don’t care much about basic – very basic – apostrophe use.

Or am I being unfair? Is it really so ‘obvious’ that someone unable to use apostrophes with confidence does not care? Are they even aware of their mistakes?

Reason I ask is that I have explained the basics to many struggling students before, and have always emphasised how vital it is to take it all on board. But it’s a rare learner writer who demonstrates rapid improvement in this area. Quite often I see no improvement at all. “Can I help with apostrophes?” I ask. “Anything I can clarify?” No reply is the norm. Are people a bit embarrassed? Do they think it’s unimportant? Are they just not interested? Do they wonder why I’m pressing the point?

I don’t mean this in an infuriated way, but I genuinely struggle to understand why apostrophes are the source of so much error. It seems to me that many writers merely guess where they go and where they don’t. Could some writers be apostrophe ‘blocked’ – much in the same way some perfectly bright people wrestle with basic arithmetic?

I see some cornea-warpers, I really do. “Cheer’s” on a distressingly regular basis at the end of messages. “Mens” and “Womens” in T K Maxx. “Coven’t Garden” on a sign once. But it was this appalling example pictured that has inspired this post. The “term’s & condition’s” is by no means the only grammatical infelicity on display in this extract from a catalogue I was given recently at a press event (yes, really), but it’s the one that sucked my eyes out and made my sockets weep blood.

Here’s what I think on this – and bear in mind I’m fairly liberal. It’s fine to be hazy on advanced use, but vital to get the fundamentals right. Nay-sayers may argue that there are people in our business who do not know these basics – and I’d agree. I know of at least two whose use of apostrophes is woeful. But they are established, making a living, and, to some extent, can afford not to give a shit. And I need to keep in mind the possibility that maybe they’ve never been told how bad they are.

Anyway. If you’re starting out, my view is you need to know the following:

When are apostrophes used?Principally:
1. To indicate possession or ‘of’.
2. To indicate missing / omitted letters - especially in less formal writing.

How do you use them in the first case?
After the possessor or entity / thing being “of’d”, adding an “s” if required:
* Claire’s car = the car of Claire
* everyone’s favourite = the favourite of everyone
* the people’s champion = the champion of the people
* ten years’ experience = experience of ten years

Note the difference between singular and plural:
* The book’s cover = the cover of the book
* The books’ cover = the cover of the books

There are exceptions:
* ours = of us / belonging to us
* yours = of you / belonging to you
* theirs = of them / belonging to them

“It’s” and “its” appear to cause particular trauma:
* It’s = it is (or ‘it has’)
* Its = belonging to it / of it
* It’s a large animal because of its appetite = It is a large animal because of the appetite of it
(There is no such construction as its’.)

How do you use them in the second case?
Here are some examples, with two or more words contracting into one:
* Let’s see = Let us see
* I’ve a degree in English = I have a degree in English
* The music’s rock’n’roll = The music is rock and roll
* Wouldn’t it be good, don’t you think? = Would it not be good, do you not think?

There are other quirky examples:
* sou’wester = southwester
* gov’t = government

There are exceptions:
* You shan’t go to the ball = You shall not go to the ball
(The double-l from ‘shall’ is not replaced by an apostrophe whereas the ‘o’ from ‘not’ is.)
* I won’t say! = I will not say!
(the ‘ill’ from ‘will’ being replaced by an ‘o’, not an apostrophe)
* Abbreviated words in common use, such as photo, phone, demo and ad.

When are they not used?
To indicate ordinary plurals:
* Best wishes to you!
* I like your LPs

To indicate an adjective:
* Sports field
* Accounts department

When in doubt…
I expect there might be exceptions, but try one of these:

1. Ask yourself whether you're dealing with two nouns – the possessed and possessor – with the possessor taking the apostrophe.

* The dog’s fur (ie the dog is the possessor of the fur)
* The dog’s furry coat (ie the dog is the possessor of the furry coat)


* The dogs are furry (there is no possession here; furry is an adjective; there is only one noun)
* The furry dog walks fast (there is no possession here; walks is a verb; there is only one noun)

2. Another test is to see whether you need an apostrophe in the singular. If you don’t, you won’t need it in the plural. If you do, you will:

* one week’s notice (ie “notice of one week”)
* two weeks’ notice (ie “notice of two weeks”)


* one month pregnant
* nine months pregnant

(NB: nine months’ pregnancy (ie “pregnancy of nine months”))

3. To decide whether it’s or its is right, replace the term with “it is”. If it makes sense, use “it’s”.

Anything else?
Loads. Advanced apostrophe use can get fiddly, quirky and controversial. Debate continues on some issues. “Dos and don’ts” or “Do’s and don’ts”? “Mind your p’s and q’s” or “Mind your ps and qs” / “Mind your Ps and Qs”?

Different publications and authorities may have different views and policies, but you don’t need to worry about these unless you’re an apostrophe nerd (which is not a bad thing) or want to be a sub editor. See a style guide or grammar book for more info if you’re keen.

And it’s St James’s Park in London, but St James’ Park in Newcastle. Neither is St Jame’s Park…

Found this Mistake useful? You might also like my new ebook 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make (Kindle edition), priced £1.99 / $2.99.

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