How apostrophes can get you arrested

Apostrophes are everywhere. Especially in the wrong places. Often called greengrocer’s apostrophes, these are well-meaning but unnecessary apostrophes in plural words, anecdotally favoured by shop owners who feel compelled to add an apostrophe to the end of any word that ends in “s” on their display placards. You know the sort of thing:

  • Banana’s $4.99kg
  • Fresh carrot’s
  • Todays special’s

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that despite their 300-year existence, apostrophes are under threat. According to the article, the forces behind the move to abolish apostrophes are the “knuckle-dragging illiterates” who staff lower-level government jobs and a clique of modern grammarians who argue that apostrophes “hold children back”.

While I see little evidence that apostrophes are dying out, it’s not just greengrocers who don’t know their apostrophes from their brussels sprouts. If you are one of the many people who are not quite sure how to use them, you’re not alone (there’s a quick overview below). Many of my clients quietly confess that they are confused about when and where to use apostrophes, especially with “its” and “it’s.

Another common example is, “she was born in the 1960’s…”, or “since the 1970’s…”. These may be examples of apostrophe misuse, but at least they show us that people understand apostrophes have a purpose.

I take comfort from the Apostrophe Preservation Society and my good friend Liz, who confessed last year that she seethes when she sees apostrophes misused, or, even worse, not used at all. She’s not the only one who gets annoyed. Last year, SBS World News reported on two Americans who were cycling around the U.S. correcting publicly- displayed typos. (Don’t try this at home: I later read they were arrested for defacing public property.)

The rules surrounding the apostrophe are not as daunting as they might first appear. Here’s an overview.

When to use the Apostrophe

1. To show ownership or possession.

(a) When one thing owns another, the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’. For example:

I have borrowed Damian’s car.
We walked Andrew’s dog.
It is the company’s policy.

(b) When more than one thing owns something, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’. For example:

The three schools’ results were impressive.
The two dogs’ owners got together after the training class.

(c) When a noun ending in “s” owns something, the apostrophe goes after the “s”. For example:

Chris’ book
Rufus’ friends

(d) When two things share joint ownership of something, you only need to add one apostrophe at the end of the second “owner”. For example:

Mum and Dad’s house
His mother and father’s legacy
Will and Toby’s restaurant

2. When referring to time. For example:

Six weeks’ time
Three months’ worth
A day’s trip from Sydney

3. To show letters have been left out

When you are shortening a word, or combining two words into one, the apostrophe replaces the missing letters. For example:

it is /it has = it’s
do not = don’t
should not = shouldn’t
what is = what’s
that is = that’s
cannot = can’t
you are = you’re

When NOT to use the Apostrophe

1. To indicate a plural

A plural doesn’t have an apostrophe, unless it owns something. For example:

Incorrect: Here are some photo’s for you.
It should be: Here are some photos for you

Incorrect: Todays special’s
It should be: Today’s specials

The exception to this rule is when you are referring to plural letters of the alphabet. For example:

Mind your p’s and q’s.
Read the t’s and c’s.

2. When you are using a pronoun

A pronoun is a small word that represents a thing or a person – such as: I, me, she, he, him, it, its, we, us, our, you, your, their, or them.

The most common mistake happens with “it’s”. Just remember: only use the apostrophe if you are talking about “it is”.

The following are all incorrect:

The dog was their’s.
It’s nose was red.
Their’s is the house on the hill.
It’s eyes were blue.

They should be:

The dog was theirs.
Its nose was red.
Theirs is the house on the hill.
Its eyes were blue.

3. When writing about an official Australian placename

In 1966, the Geographical Names Board decided that Australian place street and road names would not have an apostrophe:

Kings Cross
Saint James Station
Mrs Macquaries Chair

4. After an acronym or “initialism”

When many words are shortened into one, and referred to as a series of letters or pronounced as a word (e.g. TAFE), there is no need to include an apostrophe.

For example, the following are incorrect: MP’s, FAQ’s and CEO’s.

They should be: MPs, FAQs, CEOs.

5. When referring to a decade

Many people incorrectly insert an apostrophe when referring to a period in time – 1960’s, 70’s. It is correct to use 1960s, 70s.

For more on avoiding grammatical errors and word confusion, download our free guide
Do You Makes These Mistakes in English?

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