The poor old apostrophe. It’s been abused so often that you wouldn’t blame it for being in long term therapy. So, time to get it up on our wordologist couch and see what the problems are.

A very common one is adding it to form plurals. As in a bag of potato’s, a collection of DVD’s, a pair of shoe’s. It’s often called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ due to the alleged propensity of greengrocers to mis-use it in this way.

We bet you’ve seen worse. But it’s a common mistake and one that’s easy to spot.

What about the trickier ones?

Well, let’s see if we can clear things up once and for all. Here’s our at-a-glance-guide to what is right and what is wrong. Or what’s right and what’s wrong.

Short and simple

The apostrophe is used in contractions to take the place of missing letters. So, ‘what is’ becomes ‘what’s’. Likewise in the following:

  • Cannot becomes can’t
  • It is becomes it’s
  • They are becomes they’re
  • Do not becomes don’t
  • You are becomes you’re
  • They are becomes they’re
  • Who is becomes who’s
  • They will becomes they’ll
  • You will becomes you’ll

You get the picture, so let’s move on to another essential job the apostrophe performs.

Getting possessive

The apostrophe is used to show possession- that something belongs to a person or to a thing. John’s book means the book belongs to John. Most of the time it’s that simple, but you have to give everyone an apostrophe. So:

John’s book is better than Jim’s.

Jim might not be pleased, but he needs that apostrophe. Now, what if something belongs to more than one person? Or more than one thing belongs to more than one person? Don’t panic, just stick to these rules.

  1. If the word is singular, add ‘s: The boy’s books – means the books belonging to one boy.
  2. If the word is plural and ends in s, just add an apostrophe: The boys’ books – means the books belonging to two or more boys.
  3. If the word is a plural but doesn’t end in s, add ‘s: The children’s books – means the books belonging to the children.

About time

The possessive apostrophe can easily trip people up when they’re writing about time.

Just remember that the singular and plural rule still applies. So it’s . . .

Reading the book was a week’s work – because the word ‘week’ is singular.

Writing the book was two years’ work –because the word ‘years’ is plural.

The terrible twins

There’s a pair of mistakes that cause no end of mischief if you let them. We’re talking about its and it’s. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Its is always possessive. For example, the child has lost its book.

On the other hand, it’s is always short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’: for example, it’s raining or it’s been raining. Never anything else. It’s the only time you use an apostrophe in this way.

Oh, and we should also mention their almost equally annoying cousins – whose and who’s.

Whose is always possessive. For example whose book is that?

Who’s is always just short for ‘who is’. That’s the only way you should ever use it.

Potato postscript

The plural of potato is of course potatoes, not potato’s or even potatos. But that’s a story for another day, or another blog.