Apostrophes – get them right every time

Little boy at his desk looking confused
Apostrophes are tricky things. Do they imply ownership or are they there to denote a missing letter? Do they go before the ‘s’ or after? Jackie Cosh explains how to help your child master them.

No punctuation mark causes as much confusion as the apostrophe. Even adults who pride themselves on having good grammar and punctuation will often be found adding in a stray apostrophe.

Likewise, it’s the punctuation mark which gets experts the most rattled. Its misuse has led to the creation of groups such as The Apostrophe Protection Society and has resulted in the creation of the term ‘greengrocer's apostrophe’. Why grocers? Well, this relates to the fact that greengrocers have become well known for their misuse of apostrophes. Google the term and you will find photographic evidence of ‘banana’s’ and ‘strawberry’s’ being advertised erroneously. And the term has stuck.

Really apostrophe rules are quite simple, though and, if followed, the chance of making a faux pas is virtually nil. So here’s everything you need to know...

Why are apostrophes used?

An apostrophe is used for one of two reasons:

  1. To signify possession (the dog’s tail, the boy’s trousers). When the owners of the item are plural, the apostrophe goes AFTER the plural s (the dogs' tails, the boys' trousers).
  2. To show that a letter has been omitted – so can’t (instead of cannot), don’t (instead of do not)

Apostrophes are never used to indicate plurals, so you would write ‘two skirts’, not ‘two skirt’s’, and ‘all my books’ not ‘all my book’s’.

Admittedly the first rule causes more confusion than the second. If you can remember one rule about apostrophes, remember: ‘Possession not plural’.

Make this your mantra for apostrophes and it will make it much easier to remember when to use one and when not to.

How to remember where the apostrophe goes

Children tend to remember when an apostrophe is needed but forget where it goes, making errors such as ‘is’nt’, ‘are’nt’. They have grasped the concept but not the reason for it.

Remind them that the apostrophe goes instead of the missing letter, as this will help them work out where to place it. This is particularly useful for avoiding mixing up ‘it’s’ and the pronoun ‘its’.

It's and its

It's means it is. The apostrophe is used to show that a letter is missing (it is).

Its is a pronoun and means 'belonging to it' ('the dog ran after its tail').