Apostrophes are used in English to show that:
- there are letters missing from the word (contractions)
- something belongs to someone (possession or ownership).
There are exceptions to how these rules apply, and I’ll talk about some of these, too.
The general rule is that ’s shows possession. So to say Sam’s or Betty’s shows that the thing being talked about belongs to Sam, or to Betty.
So far, so good!
Apostrophes are also used to show that letters have been left out of the word. For example, the word can’t is short for cannot (or can not) – and the apostrophe shows that the letters “no” have been left out:
cannot — cannot — can’t
Some other examples are:
- did not — did not — didn’t
- there is — there is — there’s
- I will — I will — I’ll
- could have — could have — could’ve (sometimes mispronounced “could of” — a horrendous crime to the ears of a grammar geek!)
- we are — we are — we’re.
An apostrophe is also used in won’t; despite the altered spelling, won’t is short for will not, so the apostrophe also indicates missing letters.
It wouldn’t be English if there weren’t exceptions to confuse us, would it?
The one that confuses many people is it’s and its. Following the rules above, it’s could be showing:
- something belongs to it
- a contraction of it is.
In fact, it’s is always a contraction of it is, with the apostrophe indicating there are letters missing.
This rule means that we can’t use an apostrophe when we want to show that something belongs to it, so there is never an apostrophe for the possessive for it.
- it’s = it is
- its = something belonging to it (eg, “I’ve got a jar, but I can’t find its lid.”)
Who’s and whose actually follow the same rule as it’s and its. Who’s is always short for who is; whose is the possessive.
A workmate taught me a good way to remember this – have you heard of Who’s Who? It’s a British publication that gives basic information about a number of well-known people (you can find out more about it at Who’s Who on Wikipedia). In the publication’s title, Who’s is short for Who is.
My workmate used the phrase “Whose Who’s Who is it?” as a quick check to remind herself which one to use. She knew that the book was Who’s, short for who is, so therefore whose meant who did it belong to.
(*thank you to Gabrielle and Mary for teaching me this example in the dim, dark, distant past.)
- who’s = who is
- whose = possessive form of who (“whose is it?”).
Clear as mud?
(Note for expert players: personal pronouns (him, her, it, their, your, our) never use an apostrophe to show possession. So the correct use is his, hers, its, theirs, yours, or ours to indicate ownership of something; never his’s (obviously!), her’s, it’s, their’s, your’s, or our’s.)
Some apostrophe abuses (an ever-evolving list)
There are many incorrect uses of apostrophes in signs and other places. Some common ones are:
- making an acronym a plural (RTD, DVD, CD)
for example, a ready-to-drink (pre-mixed) alcoholic drink is known as an RTD. If you’re talking about more than one, you would say RTDs (or DVDs/CDs), and never the (very commonly seen) RTD’s (or DVD’s/CD’s).
(Some people might argue that the apostrophe shows there are missing letters, but in that case the apostrophe would still be in the wrong place – you might write R’T’Ds and still be more correct than RTD’s.)
- making a single object plural
for example, the plural of cabbage is cabbages (never cabbage’s); Sunday becomes Sundays; potato becomes potatoes (never potato’s); avocado becomes avocados
- giving the possessive to a word that’s a plural
for example, children is the plural of child. So how do you write that a playground is for children? It becomes a children’s playground (not a childrens playground); and a restaurant might have a men’s bathroom, not a mens bathroom.
When you’re writing, some quick questions to ask yourself before using an apostrophe are:
- is it a contraction?
- does it indicate ownership?
- and remember that it and who go against the general rule.
Is there a word you’ve always been confused about regarding apostrophes? Ask below, and we’ll figure out a way to help you remember it.