The apostrophe is a much-abused piece of punctuation. It’s only small, but it somehow manages to stir up emotional outbursts from people who appreciate it when it is misused.
It’s all quite simple really. In the previous paragraph, and the previous sentence, I used it to show a contraction. In both cases the apostrophe replaced an “i”. If I had written it out in full I would have written “It is”.
Now I’m going to give you some rules. But please don’t panic. Once you know how to use it, it’s easy. And the reward for using it correctly is that people won’t judge you badly (not over your punctuation use, anyway).
With a singular noun it is placed before the “s”:
- Sammy’s bike
Same place for indefinite pronouns:
- That’s someone else’s book on the table.
In hyphenated nouns the apostrophe still goes before the “s”:
- We’re having Christmas dinner at my mother-in-law’s place.
Things get a little trick when there are two or more nouns.
- We’re going to Joan and David’s place for dinner. (Joan and David both live there.)
- To save them time, we went and paid John’s and Samir’s electricity bills. (In this case we are paying two bills—John’s bill and Samir’s bill.)
With plural nouns the apostrophe comes before the “s”:
- No matter how often I ask them to put them away, every time I walk into the children’s room I find their toys all over the floor.
But when the possessor is a regular plural, it follows the “s”:
- The boys’ coats were hanging on the wall. (There was more than one boy.)
With those wonderful parts of speech known as possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs) we don’t ever use an apostrophe.
The meaning of the word “It’s” is always “it is”.
We also use apostrophes when we miss out a letter in a word (this is usually in poetry or song):
- Lest ye be judg’d
- O’er the mountains
- Where e’er you be, let the wind go free
Miscellaneous Other Uses
There are a few other uses for this delightful little squiggle.
We use it in expressions of time and quantity:
- She has five years’ experience in the role.
- I had to give four weeks’ notice to terminate the lease on my apartment.
We use it in dates when we leave part of the number out.
- She graduated in ’09.
Apostrophes also hang around in some Irish names:
And we can use it to indicate the plural of words.
- The do’s and don’t’s of using the apostrophe
- Why do people start sentences with and’s and but’s?
It’s not so difficult but, as I mentioned, people do get rather passionate about it. Especially when they see greengrocers selling potatoe’s. Get it right and people are unlikely to comment, but beware if you get it wrong…someone is sure to notice.