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Practical Tips for Using the Apostrophe in Your Writing

Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.

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Introduction

The apostrophe is one of the most misused punctuation marks. Consider a sign I once saw on a small roadside shop:

Classic Fashion's

What do you think about the name? Is the apostrophe correctly used? The answer is NO! The temptation to randomly put an apostrophe before an 's' is not uncommon but, unfortunately, it is incorrect.

For all practical purposes, an apostrophe is used only for two reasons:

  1. To combine two words to create a shorter word.
  2. To denote ownership.

Now let's look at the details for both the cases.

To Combine Two Words to Create a Shorter Word

Combining two words to create a shorter word helps make your text sound less verbose. It also helps make your writing more conversational. For eg:

It is, becomes it's.

Do not, becomes don't.

I am, becomes I'm.

I will, becomes I'll.

We have, becomes we've.

Could have becomes could've.

Let us, becomes let's.

Notice that the apostrophe is placed where alphabets are dropped to combine two words into a shorter word.

To Indicate Ownership

An apostrophe is used to indicate ownership. For example:

  1. This is John's bat.
  2. This is that girl's book.
  3. This is that man's hat.
  4. He is the country's leader.

In all the cases above, there is an owner and an object that is being owned. The owner is appended with an apostrophe followed by an 's' to indicate ownership.

What should we do if the owner naturally ends with an 's'? We use the same rule as above. Add an apostrophe followed by an 's', as shown in the example below:

  1. It is the boss's responsibility to decide the vision of the company.

In all the examples above, the owner is singular. There's just one thing that does the owning.

However, how should we handle the scenario where the owner is plural. Most plural words end with an 's'. Therefore, the rule for using an apostrophe to indicate ownership in the case of a plural owner(s) is slightly different. We append the owner with only an apostrophe without the 's', as shown in the examples below:

  1. The girls' books.
  2. The nations' strategy. (Strategy of a group of nations)

However, if the plural does not end with an 's', then we use the typical rule of appending the owners with an apostrophe followed by an 's', as shown in the example below:

  1. The people's leader. (If the plural does not end in an 's' then we add the 's' and the apostrophe goes before the 's')

Exception

There is, however, one exceptional case where we do not use an apostrophe to indicate ownership. This happens when we use a word that's already an owner word and therefore does not need an apostrophe to indicate ownership. I'm sorry if it sounds confusing, but the examples below will clarify the concept very well.

  1. Its culture is very interesting. ('Its' is already an ownership word)
  2. Your book is open. ('Your' is already an ownership word)
  3. Whose book is this? ('Whose' is already an ownership word)

Differentiating Between Its and It's

Consider the two sentences below:

  1. It's a sunny day.
  2. India has an abundance of solar energy because its climate is very sunny for at least nine months a year.

In the first example, we used the apostrophe to combine two words into one.

It is a sunny day, became it's a sunny day.

However, in the second example, 'its' is used to indicate ownership but because 'its' is already an ownership word, we do not use an apostrophe.

If all this sounds very confusing, then speak the sentence aloud by separating the abbreviated words. If the sentence still sounds good then use the apostrophe.

So, for the first example, if you aren't certain about using an apostrophe, then use it anyways and then speak the sentence out aloud by separating the abbreviated words.

For it's a sunny day, speak aloud: it is a sunny day. That sounds correct. Therefore, we can use an apostrophe in this case.

In the second example, let's say, we add the apostrophe and try the test.

"India has an abundance of solar energy because it's climate is very sunny for at least nine months a year" when read aloud after separating the abbreviated words will read as: "India has an abundance of solar energy because it is climate is very sunny for at least nine months a year."

The sentence after separated the abbreviated words is clearly incorrect. Therefore, we should not use an apostrophe in this case. The correct sentence is:

"India has an abundance of solar energy because its climate is very sunny for at least nine months a year"

An Apostrophe is Never Used to Indicate Plurals

Let's circle back to the first example:

Classic Fashion's

The word Fashion's is actually a plural word. Therefore, it should never have an apostrophe. The correct way to write the name of the shop would be:

Classic Fashions

Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you clarify some of the misconceptions about how and when to use an apostrophe.

In conclusion, an apostrophe is used in two cases: to combine two words into one shorter word, and to indicate ownership.

When combining two words to create a shorter word, use the apostrophe at the location where letters are dropped from the word. Eg: that is, becomes that's; it is, becomes it's, and we have becomes we've.

If the word that is the owner is singular (eg: boy), then always append it with an apostrophe followed by an 's' (eg: This boy's bat). Do this even if the word naturally ends with an 's' (eg: boss becomes boss's). However, if the owner is plural and ends with an 's' (eg: nations), then use only the apostrophe without the 's' (eg: nations' strategy). However, if the owner does not end with as 's', then use the typical rule of appending the word with an apostrophe followed by an 's' (eg: people's leader). Finally, there is an exceptional case where we never use an apostrophe to indicate ownership (eg: its culture, your book, whose book is this?). In all the three cases where we do not use an apostrophe, the words its, your, and whose are already ownership words and, therefore, do not need to be appended with an apostrophe and an 's'.

When in confusion, separate the abbreviated words and if the sentence still sounds correct, then use the apostrophe.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Parag Shah 333

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