How apostrophes work and why they matter

So many people are confused by apostrophes, and yet the rules are really very simple and do make writing much easier to understand if used properly.

Apostrophes are used in only two ways:

1. To indicate ownership

2. To indicate an abreviation

Now what’s so hard about that?

Here are a couple of simple examples illustrating ownership:

The cat’s bowls are empty. (The apostrophe here tells you that some bowls belong to the cat, and also that we are talking about only one cat, because the apostrophe come before the s.)

The cats’ bowl is empty. (The apostrophe tells you that a bowl, shared by more than one cat, is empty. You can tell there is more than one cat involved because the apostrophe comes after that s of cats.)

And what about abbreviation? Well, every time you see a word like can’t, won’t or isn’t, the apostrophe is telling you that a word has been abbreviated – in this case the word ‘not’. These are of course shortened forms of cannot, will not and is not.  (And yes, I admit won’t is an odd shortening of will not, and I’m sure there’s a good etymological reason for it, but I don’t know what it is!)

Apostrophes are never used to indicate a plural!


The famous ‘green grocers’ apostrophe’ comes from the misconception that you always need an apostrophe before an s. It was apparently often seen on greengrocers display boards and price notices – things like ‘Apple’s – 5op per lb’. The apostrophe is completely superfluous here. There is nothing belonging to the apple and the sign isn’t a shortening of ‘Apple is 50p per lb’, so no apostrophe is needed.

But here’s where it does get slightly confusing …

A friend of mine who is a retired teacher apparently spent many years teaching her primary school classes that the word it’s meant ‘belonging to it’. That makes perfect sense according to what we have above – an indication of ownership. Unfortunately it’s wrong. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, and as ‘it’s’ is already taken, so to speak, with that contraction, ‘belonging to it’ is left apostrophe-less and is written its. So ‘The cat wants its bowl filling’ and ‘What’s that down there meowing at the bowl? It’s the cat.’

And then there’s the little matter of irregular plurals. Where a plural is not made by sticking an s on the end of a word, apostrophes tend to be used slightly differently. So for example let’s look at man/men, woman/women, child/children. If you want to say that one man owns a meadow and that meadow should be mowed, you could say, ‘The man’s meadow needs mowing.’ However, unlike ‘normal’ plurals, if the meadow belonged to several men you’d say ‘The men’s meadow needs mowing’ and not ‘the mens’ meadow needs mowing.’  The same would apply to the children’s playground or the women’s reading group. Of course, with these irregular plurals you know straight away that you are talking about more than one person, so there is not need for the apostrophe to come after the s to tell you.

Why they matter

Well Waterstones the booksellers got themselves some minor publicity recently by changing their name from Waterstone’s, having decided that the apostrophe didn’t matter to them. Indeed, in the case of a company name, I suppose it doesn’t, but there are times when a missing or misplaced apostrophe can cause confusion.

I have to admit that there are plenty of times when a missing or misused apostrophe looks funny to those in the know but actually isn’t doing any harm, but there are instances where the lack of an apostrophe can make a dramatic difference. My favourite, and one that is often quoted, is from Kingsley Amis: “Those things over there are my husbands.”

I think that’s pretty much all there is to it, except to say that if you’re (contraction of you are!) still confused, I can thoroughly recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by RL Trask*, or for a bit of light reading, the highly entertaining and informative Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.

I must away – there’s a cat here loudly informing me that his bowl is empty!

*Penguin Transcription, like the thousands of other companies with Penguin in their name, is (sadly!)  in no way related to Penguin Books who publish this guide!

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