How to use an Apostrophe

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Every day Everyday I have to put up with people's inability to use an apostrophe correctly. Such a small punctuation mark seems to appear incorrectly on signs all over the place.

An apostrophe is only used in two circumstances. Firstly to indicate ownership of an item (for example, "John's pencil") and secondly where one or more letters have been missed out of a word (for example, "don't" is short for "do not").

To make it easy for people to understand, I have given several examples on this web page.

Where an Apostrophe is used:

To indicate ownership when one person owns the item:
To quote the example given above, "John's pencil" is used to indicate "the pencil belonging to John". The same is true even if the person's name ends in an "s". For example, "Les's hat" means the "hat belonging to Les".

To indicate ownership when more than one person owns the item:
An apostrophe is sometimes used when more than one person owns the item, but only when the plural of the owner does not end in an "s". For example, "Children's Corner" is the corner belonging to the children.

However, when the plural of the owner does end in an 's', the ownership is simply shown by an additional apostrophe and no additional 's'. Keeping with the same subject, "Kids' Corner" is the corner belonging to the kids.

Indefinite pronouns
Although possessive personal pronouns don't use an apostrophe, possessive indefinite pronouns do. For example "one's body" or "someone's pencil".

Where letters are missing:
To quote the example given above, "don't" is short for "do not", where the second "o" has been missed out of the saying. Another example is "spec'd" being short for "specified".

Where an Apostrophe is NOT used

To make a word plural
Most words are made plural by adding an "s" to the singular form of the noun. For example, "pens" is the plural of "pen" and "cars" is the plural of "car". An apostrophe is never used to make words plural ("apple's" is not the plural of "apple").

To make an acronym (or other initialisation) plural
Despite common usage, an apostrophe is not used to make an initialisation plural; the same rules apply as when making words plural. For example, the plural of CD is CDs, not CD's.

Possessive Pronouns
When an item is said to belong to someone and that someone is referred to as a pronoun (it, he, she, you etc.), then an apostrophe is not used ("its door", not "it's door" and "your glasses", not "you're glasses").

Follow these rules, and you won't go far wrong.

Questions I Want to Know the Answer to:

The Double Possesive
Why is it considered acceptable to say something like "He's a friend of John's" - surely it should be "He's a friend of John"? The problem is, "He's a friend of mine" sounds OK, but "He's a friend of me" sounds wrong. I've tried to find a justification for this on the 'net and in books, but all I can find is a general acceptance that this is used, but no explanation.

5th July 2004: I have just had an answer to this question from Rob de Jong from The Netherlands. I'll simply quote it in full, and think about it later.

On your pet peeve considering apostrophe.

Why is it "one's" and not "ones"?
Many exceptions in languages are made to avoid ambiguity. Adding the 's' to the other pronouns singularly indicate a possessive pronoun. This is mainly since the plural of these pronouns is irregular and as such, different to each other. Were the exception not made, "ones" could either indicate the plural of "one", or the possessive form of "one". The distinction is made clear by use of the apostrophe.

I could never justify this before, which is why Mr de Jong e-mailed me. I don't agree with Mr de Jong's explanation for this. I have given what I think is a better explanation above.

The Double Possessive
"He is my friend" becomes "He is one of my friends". This is simplified to "He is a friend of mine". This is thus not a double possession. "He" is part of a group that "belongs" to me, in contrary to "he" possesses part of a group that "belongs" to me.

Likewise, as such it will be:
"He is John's friend", to become "He is one of John's friends". This then is simplified to, "He is a friend of John's".

Basically, the err you have made is that "He's a friend of John's" does not expand to: "He has a friend of John's", but rather to: "He is a friend of John's".

This is one of the reasons that simplifications using the apostrophe to replace parts of words, are shunned from written text.

If anybody wants to know more about punctuation, Lynne Truss's book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is an excellent buy.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves


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Created on: 02 Sep 2002. Modified on: 20 Dec 2009.
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