Those of us returning to studies after a long break, gap year, or after raising children, may not have thought about apostrophes in years.
Others of us were never taught how to use apostrophes properly in the first place.
Many English as a Second Language (ESL) students missed this lesson, and many others of us were chucking a sickie the day our teachers taught us these important rules!
Unfortunately, very few students get apostrophe placement right. Many were taught apostrophe usage years ago and have let mistakes seep back into their work.
We get lazy and forgetful and one of the first things to go is our discipline with apostrophe placement.
If you are making apostrophe mistakes, you are losing marks in your assignments. Even if your marker doesn’t say so in their feedback, your apostrophe mistakes are costing you.
An essay with poor apostrophe placement will make your marker instantly think your work is sloppy, unedited, and unprofessional.
Make your work look clean, tidy, and well-presented so your marker looks at your work positively. This will snowball into higher marks overall.
Below are eleven simple steps for getting apostrophes used right every time to raise those marks and ace your essays.
1. Do not use apostrophes to make plurals
The biggest apostrophe make is the use of apostrophes for plurals. Apostrophes do not indicate plurality.
One girl makes two girls, not two girl’s. One glass makes two glasses, not two glass’s. No, no, no.
Apostrophes do not make plurals. Apostrophes do not make plurals. Apostrophes do not make plurals.
If you break this golden rule, your marks are going to sink very, very low.
Apostrophes do not make plurals. Can I repeat myself anymore?
2. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate ownership
When one person owns something, we use an apostrophe and then an s. This is the most common way that apostrophes will be used, and the easiest rule to remember.
If you own it, put an apostrophe on it. The technical word for this is ‘possessive apostrophe’. Let’s take a look:
- Sam owns a sheep.
- It is Sam’s sheep.
- Anna owns a car.
- It is Anna’s car.
There are exceptions to this rule, so read on. Step 3 shows when the apostrophe moves from before to after the s.
3. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate membership
When one person is a member of a group, team, country, and so on, we use an apostrophe and then an s.
This is very similar to the ownership rule. Remember, if the person is a member of a group, then you need an apostrophe. Let’s take a look:
- Sam is a member of a football team.
- It is Sam’s football team.
- Anna is a member of a church.
- It is Anna’s church.
- Tom is a member of a country.
- It is Tom’s country.
Activity: Try it Yourself
Which country are you a member of? If you are named Tom and you’re American, you could write down “The United States of America is Tom’s country.”
Like most rules, there are exceptions to this one too, so read on. Step 4 shows when you need to break this rule.
4. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective ownership
While the above rules work when a single person owns something, it doesn’t work when there are many people.
For example, if we have our own mother who has a baby, the rule of having an apostrophe before the s works:
- The mother has a baby
- It is a mother’s baby
However, what happens if multiple mothers have babies? The rule needs to change to show we are referring to more than one mother. To do this, we move the apostrophe to after the s:
- The mothers have babies
- They are the mothers’ babies.
To recap, we need to use an apostrophe before the s if it is one person who is the owner of something but we need to use an apostrophe after the s if it is multiple people who are the owners of something.
5. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective membership
Similarly, this same rule works for multiple people who are members of a group. If it is one person who is in a group, it is Sam’s team or John’s band.
However, if we are indicating multiple people who are all members of a group, we will place the apostrophe after the s:
- The three boys are in a band.
- It is the boys’ band
- The Germans are in a club
- It is the Germans’ club
Sometimes the plural of a noun ends in -ies. We still place the apostrophe after the s for these collective plural nouns:
|The flies’ home
|The appendices’ pages
Steps 1 to 5 are our most basic and important rules of possessive apostrophes. The apostrophe goes before the s if it’s one person who is the owner or member of something, and the apostrophe goes after the s if it’s multiple people who are the owners or members of something. Easy, right!?
6. Use an apostrophe before the s for irregular plural nouns
Some words in the English language have irregular plural nouns. This means that for some reason our ancestors made unique words to signify ‘many’ of a particular name or object.
Here are some examples:
I don’t know why our ancestors decided to mess with us like this, but they did. And now we must suffer.
For irregular plural nouns, there’s no need to place the apostrophe after the s. It makes perfect sense to leave it before the s because there is absolutely no ambiguity about plurality.
Here are some examples:
- Two children own a football.
- It is the childs’ children’s footfall
- Fifteen men are in a group.
- It is the mans’ men’s group
7. Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions
Okay, we’re up to the very last of our core six rules! Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions!
This is one I’m sure you’re familiar with. I’ve already used it three times in this paragraph alone:
- It means It is
- We’re means we are
- I’ve means I have
Over time, English speakers have gotten lazy with their language and started blending words together. In fact, this is one reason why people learning English struggle to understand us! It gets harder in old English towns in the North of England where even Americans find it hard to understand those funny English accents!
It has become so commonplace to slur our words together that we have learned to write those slurred words in a particular way. We squish them together, remove the letters we don’t say and replace them with an apostrophe. Let’s look at a few more:
|Of the clock
One last quick note on contractions: these are often considered informal, and discouraged in professional writing such as in essays.
8. The rule of its versus it’s
The English language is full of contradictions and exceptions to rules. One exception is with the word “its” versus “it’s”.
Take a look at this example:
|The dog’s baby is crying.
|The cat’s baby is crying.
|The mother’s baby is crying.
|Its baby is crying.
All four of the above sentences are correct. All four sentences indicate something (a dog, a cat, a mother, and it) all possess a baby that is crying. Nonetheless, “Its” doesn’t have an apostrophe to indicate possession.
The reason for this is simple: The word “it’s” is already taken! “It’s” always means “it is”. So, the possessive apostrophe doesn’t count in this situation.
Let’s make things simple: An apostrophe should only be used for “It’s” to signify the contraction of “it is”. No exceptions. This is a quirk in the English language, and we have to deal with it!
9. Use an apostrophe before the s at the end of a list of owners or members
Next, just to complicate things a little more, the rule also changes if we are referring to a list of people who own something.
Let’s say, Tom, Bill, and John all have a band. We will say:
- It is Tom, Bill and John’s band.
However, if we were referring to Tom, Bill, and John collectively as “the boys”, we would say:
- It is the boys’ band.
Similarly, we can say that Anne and Peter own a house together. Here, because it is a list of people, we will say:
- It is Anne and Peter’s house
10. When a singular noun ends in s, most (but not all) style guides suggest including an apostrophe and an s
To recap, here as some examples of plural possessives:
- The mothers’ babies
- The soldiers’ swords
But! Some singular nouns end in s, and here’s where things get tricky. Here are a few examples of singular nouns ending in s:
To indicate that Chris owns something, do we say Chris’s or just Chris’. For example, is it “Chris’s car” or “Chris’ car”?
The answer is: no one knows. Different style guides give different advice.
The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Style Guide note that we should use an apostrophe and an s in this situation.
So, it would be Chris’s car.
While this wasn’t how I was taught in school in Australia, I do think nowadays that this is the most straightforward way of doing things, and makes the most sense to me. For example:
- Chris’s pencil was sharp.
- James’s finger was sore.
- The class’s lunch hour was long.
- The glass’s surface was shiny.
However, I would hasten to stress that some style guides do still do things the way I was taught as a kid.
For example, the Associated Press Style Book suggests that if the following word begins in s, you don’t need to include an s after the apostrophe, for example:
- AP Style: The glass’ shine.
- AP Style: The class’ seven pens.
- Chicago Style: The glass’s shine.
- Chicago Style: The class’s seven pens.
The Associated Press Style Book also suggests not including an s after the apostrophe for all proper nouns, such as names:
- AP Style: Chris’ house
- AP Style: Jess’ foot
- Chicago Style: Chris’s house
- Chicago Style: Jess’s foot
My suggestion is to stick to the Chicago Manual of Style guide unless otherwise instructed by a particularly picky teacher. This style guide is the most straightforward, consistent, and easy to remember. If a singular noun ends in s, you can still follow it with ‘s, as in Chris’s. My suggestion for teachers: accept both styles due to the ambiguity.
11. Use an apostrophe to indicate omissions
We often use apostrophes when we are writing to show lazy or truncated language use.
You might recognize this use of the apostrophe when reading the language of Hagrid in Harry Potter:
“Well, yeh might’ve bent a few rules, Harry, bu’ yeh’re all right really, aren’t you?”
Here, we have lazy language where the “g” and “t” at the end of a word are missed, as in:
- Migh’ not
This language use is not recommended in a non-fiction or essay writing, but it is worth remembering that this is one last time when apostrophe use is appropriate.
You need to know how to use apostrophes if you want to become a top student. I recommend you print out these eleven key steps and use them when editing your work:
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]