How to use Apostrophes!

When I am not writing, I do some editing and proofing for Indie writers. I also try to help three or four new writers a year. However one of the problems I’ve noticed, that many young writers have problems with, is apostrophes. They are a fairly simple problem for editors to correct, but a manuscript looks far better without such basic errors. Your chances of succeeding with submissions will be improved by not making these mistakes.

So for those of you, who feel they are unsure about how to use apostrophes, I intend to go back through the basics of when and how they should be used. Then I will go into how they should not be used. I am going to pretend you have never been explained the use of an apostrophe or have forgotten. So I apologize for taking it back to the beginning.

An apostrophe is used for two reasons.

The first is Possessional – an apostrophe indicates ownership of something. It replaces ‘of’ in a sentence, making it less repetitive and clumsy.

Examples:-  ‘The shield of Olaf,’ becomes simply ‘Olaf’s shield.’

‘The handbag of the woman,’ becomes ‘the woman’s handbag.’

‘The crown of the king,’ becomes ‘the king’s crown.’

Those example are all singular, there is no change in how you indicate possession, if more than one item belongs to the subject.

‘The dogs of the huntsman,’ would be ‘the huntsman’s dogs.’

‘The tools of the artist,’ is ‘the artist’s tools.

You can add adjectives to either the object or the subject, the apostrophe is still used in the same way. The object can be any noun, tangible or intangible. It can also be a person or persons.

‘The hard-working man’s beautiful children…’

‘The young girl’s intricate necklace…’

‘The managing director’s personal aide…’

More than one apostrophe can be used as in –

‘The rider’s horse’s ornate bridle…’

The only exceptions with this are if the subject is plural, or if it ends in a ‘s.’ The rules on how to indicate plurals (or words that end with an ‘s’) are changing. I was originally taught to add an apostrophe ‘s’ in both cases. However many people now choose to add an apostrophe to the word with no extra ‘s’. The teaching about this punctuation is in flux. You must choose one or other option and be consistent about it. It does not matter if the objects are singular or plural. If one or more things belongs to more than one person, then the apostrophe always goes after the word’s end.

The swords of the warriors were sharp. Can become either

  • The swords of the warriors were sharp. Can become either
    • The warriors’s (plural) swords (plural) were sharp. Or
    • The warriors’ (plural) swords (plural) were sharp.
    • The warriors’s (plural) leader (singular) … Or
    • The warriors’ (plural) leader (singular) …

    I am currently using the second option because it looks neater and Word prefers it. The older version however is not incorrect.  If a word naturally end in ‘s’ then the apostrophe is treated the same.

    • Charles’s horse… Or Charles’ horse…
    • The Empress’s clothes… Or The Empress’ clothes


This has been complicated, by some businesses which have decided the typing of possessional apostrophes wastes typists’ time. I suspect this is because frequently they do not know how to correctly use apostrophes, (both bosses and typists.) So letters are being typed without any possessional apostrophes. If you were taught to do that for business letters, then you should learn how to use apostrophes for writing articles, blogs, stories and books.

The second use of an apostrophe is to abbreviate phrases. They are usually used to join two words together, missing one or more letters.

Examples:- ‘Let us’ becomes ‘let’s.’  ‘We have’ becomes ‘we’ve.’

There is one exception to these rules. Its and it’s. This ignores the possessional rule for clarity. ‘It’s’ always means ‘it is’ abbreviated. Whereas ‘its’ always means belonging to it.

Examples:- It is not fair, becomes ‘It’s not fair.’  (abbreviated)

‘The dog’s lead could be written as ‘its lead.’        (possessional)

It’s important to remember the it’s / its rules because so far the WORD spellchecker has not got it right and will put a red line under them sometimes. Eventually Microsoft will correct that failing.

Now we come to the problem of unnecessary apostrophes. These are sometimes called aberrant apostrophes. The expression was coined by the late Keith Waterhouse, (author of Billy Liar.) He invented the AAAA, the Association for the Abolition of Aberrant Apostrophes. You see them everywhere, but are particularly prevalent in greengrocers’ shops. You may have seen notices written advertising ‘Potato’s, Orange’s, Tomato’s’ and I have recently seen them in ‘euro’s.’ Nothing belongs to the euros, tomatoes or oranges. The words are not abbreviated from Euro us, potato is, or any other possibility. Just because a word ends in ‘s’ it does not need an apostrophe unless something belongs to it, or it has been abbreviated. If you find yourself making this mistake, ask yourself when checking through, whether anything belongs to the noun, to which you have attached an apostrophe.

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