From newspaper articles to café menus, from websites to office documents, New Zealand has a fondness for the misused apostrophe.

Ever sat staring at something you’ve written, wondering where, just where, that little mark should go? Wonder no more. This simple guide, though far from exhaustive, will help you solve the majority of apostrophic problems you might face.

Using Apostrophes

Simply put, an apostrophe is used for two things:

  • To show the omission of one or more letters from a word.
  • To indicate possession.

Omission

Common examples of omission include:

  • Isn’t and don’t – here, the apostrophe indicates that the ‘o’ is missing in the “not” of is not and do not.
  • We’ll – the apostrophe here shows that the letters ‘wi’ are missing from we will.
  • We’re - the apostrophe indicates the missing letter ‘a’ in we are.
  • That’s – the “i” is missing in that is.

Possession

Possession is probably the area where most cases of apostrophe misuse occur. If you are talking about something that belongs to a person, or a group of people, chances are you’ll need to use an apostrophe. Consider these examples:

Singular

To show possession when using a singular noun – ‘s is used, as in:

  • “That is John’s bike.” The apostrophe here shows that the bike belongs to John. It does not indicate that any letters are missing.
  • New Zealand’s navy.” The navy belongs to New Zealand.
  • “I’m going to the butcher’s.” Here, we understand that we mean the butcher’s shop i.e. a shop owned by one butcher.

Plural

If you are using a plural noun that does not end in an ‘s’, the situation is the same – you add ‘s.

  • “A display of women’s clothes.” The clothes belong to women as a group.
  • “The crew’s bunkroom.” The bunkroom belongs to all of the crew, not just an individual crew member.

If you are using a plural noun that ends in ‘s’, all that is needed to show possession is an apostrophe by itself.

  • “We drove past a girls school.” The school belongs to a group of girls.
  • “This is a students hotel.” The hotel is a place where a number of students stay.

Singular/Plural Comparison

A couple of further examples may be useful to distinguish between the singular and plural possessive apostrophe.

  • “The lion’s den.” This is the den of one lion only.
  • “The lions’ den.” Many lions live in (or own) this den.

And:

  • “The teacher read the student’s story.” The teacher read a story by one particular student.
  • “The teacher marked the students’ exam papers.” The teacher marked exam papers from more than one student, i.e. the exam papers belonged to more than one student.

A Notable Exception

The word ‘it’. With this word, an apostrophe is only used to show omission. An apostrophe is not needed to show possession.

  • It’s going to rain.” It is going to rain.
  • I put the bird back in its nest. The bird owns the nest but, unlike other nouns, the word ‘it’ does not need an apostrophe to show this.

A Common Mistake

Apostrophes are often used mistakenly when only a plural (not a possessive plural) is intended. Consider these often-seen examples:

  • “Three burger’s for 10 dollars.”

The apostrophe here is unnecessary. No letters are missing and the burgers don’t own anything.

The correct version is: “Three burgers for 10 dollars.”

Conversely:

  • “The burgers bun was soggy.”

Here, we are talking about a single burger that has a soggy bun. In effect, the bun belongs to the burger so the correct version is: ”The burger’s bun was soggy.”

But what if the buns on a whole lot of burgers were soggy?

“The burgers’ buns were soggy.”

A Note on Names

If you are speaking about ownership by someone who has a name ending in ‘s’, as in James, or Mrs. Jones, possession can be indicated in two ways – either by an apostrophe alone:

  • James’ bike. Mrs. Jones’ house.

Or by using ‘s:

  • James’s bike. Mrs. Jones’s house.

Both forms are correct, you can use either.

Three Simple Questions

So, next time you’re (you are – omission) puzzling over whether an apostrophe is needed and, if it is, where it should be placed, ask yourself these tree simple questions:

  • Are you indicating that letters are missing (isn’t, don’t etc.)?
  • Are you simply indicating a plural (burgers, bikes, ships etc.)?
  • Are you indicating possession (a burger’s bun, the burgers’ buns etc.)?

These questions may not help you in every single situation, but by asking them you’ll probably put that tricky apostrophe in the right place 90% of the time.

How to Use an Apostrophe – a Simple Guide, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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Comments

  1. Holly says:

    I am going to send this to everyone

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  2. Apostrophe says:

    So it should be McDonald’s?

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  3. Victoria says:

    Can I abbreviate AND as A’?

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    Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)
  4. Ian says:

    The advice under “Other Apostrophe Uses” is wrong. It should be the 1930s and 4WDs not 1930′s and 4WD’s. This seems to be a common mistake that has crept into usage but any good style guide will tell you that it is wrong. Plurals don’t need an apostrophe – no exceptions

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  5. Duncan Idaho says:

    Yes, Ian, I believe you’re right. Though the use of an apostrophe in the formation of date, abbreviation and acronym plurals is accepted by publications such as the New York Times it is generally regarded as incorrect by the style guides. The exception occurs where an abbreviation is formed with periods. For example, if you write Ph.D. then the plural is Ph.D.’s. Thanks for your vigilance. I have amended the article.

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