Style Matters #24: Time to rescue misguided apostrophes


Granted, the apostrophe has two rather different main roles when punctuating sentences, but its distinct applications are not that difficult to learn, remember and apply.

Yet the oft-abused apostrophe is now frequently absent without leave when it should be front and centre on the linguistic parade ground. And that may be because novice writers believe a couple of tricky variations to the apostrophe’s application are just too hard to master.

Let’s begin with the two basic roles and then review the variations.


Firstly, an apostrophe (‘) is used in contractions to show something has been left out.

can’t = cannot
I’ll = I will
it’s = it is
he’s = he is


Secondly, apostrophes are used with nouns and pronouns to show ownership.

a boy’s shoe
the children’s books
one’s foot


  • Possessive pronouns do not have an apostrophe: his, hers, its, yours, ours and theirs
  • When something is owned, the apostrophe is placed after the last letter of the owner/s:  Mary’s music, the athletes’ performances, an athlete’s reward
  • But, if two or more people share ownership, only the last one carries an apostrophe: Tim and Mary’s house
  • Yet, if two or more people own separate things, then each one has apostrophe: Yan’s and Eli’s noses
  • You can use an apostrophe to express plurals of letters but not numbers: mind your p’s and q’s but five 4s, three 7s

Other than that last variation, remember to use the apostrophe for ownership or contractions online and not for plurals. Let’s review some examples:

The dog’s wagged their tail’s.
The dogs wagged their tails.
The dog’s tail wagged just as much as all the other dogs’ tails.

I wont lose Trinas handout because its handy. (This has three errors.)
I won’t lose Trina’s handout because it’s handy.

I have Victors readings. (No possessive indicated.)
I have Victor’s readings.
(Literally: The readings belonging to Victor.)

Flared trousers were last popular in the 1970’s. (Error: it is not a possessive.)
Flared trousers were last popular in the 1970s.
Beware that 1970’s trend has returned.
(Literally: a trend of the 1970s)

With three sound stages, we will need three MC’s at the festival.
With three sound stages, we will need three MCs at the festival.

Let’s not be impatient or he’ll get angry.
(Literally: Let us not be impatient or he will get angry.)
We shouldn’t have been impatient because we knew she’d get angry.
(Literally: We should not have been impatient because we knew she would get angry. Note the agreement in tense.)

one week’s notice
(literally: one week of notice)

a year’s jail
(literally: a year in jail)


  • If a noun is singular but ends in -s or -ss, it is optional to add ‘s to indicate possession, or simply to use the apostrophe alone. Often the decision will come down to sound. If a speaker usually repeats the ‘s, do so in print as well. If not, don’t. Just remember to be consistent with whichever form you choose.
  • When a word ends with a sibilant letter that is silent, the possessive is formed with ’s: Malraux’s plays, the grand prix’s manager, although a better construction would be the manager of the grand prix.
  • Geographical place names no longer take an apostrophe: Wilsons Promontory, Kings Cross, St Andrews, Badgerys Creek, Halls Creek, and so on
  • Finally, if you like a little humour to help you remember the correct placement of apostrophes, check out Bob the Angry Flower’s illustration.


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

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