Grammar Guide #6: Correct Use of the Apostrophe

As easy as it may seem, some people don’t seem to be completely on board when it comes to using apostrophes. There are three main situations in which an apostrophe should be used:

  • Contractions
  • The possessive
  • Marking word structures

I’m now going to go through all three cases separately and provide you with examples.

1. Contractions

Contractions are words or phrases in which you have left one or more letters out, mostly to make them feel less formal. The apostrophe replaces the letters you leave out. Here are a few examples of common contractions:

  • it is = it’s
  • I am = I’m
  • cannot = can’t
  • are not = aren’t
  • should not = shouldn’t
  • could not = couldn’t
  • do not = don’t

And so on. If you want to see a full list of standard contractions, or want more information on how to use them, I suggest you check here.

2. The possessive

When you want to indicate that something belongs to someone, you usually add 's to singular nouns, and just an apostrophe or 's to a plural noun. Some examples:

  • The phone belongs to Annie. It’s Annie’s phone.
  • The house belongs to the Mitchells. It’s the Mitchells’/Mitchells’s house.
  • The food belongs to the dogs. It’s the dogs’ food.

When you want to indicate that something belongs to something that isn’t a person or animal, you usually use an of-construction rather than 's. Back in the day when I was first learning English at school, we were told 's should not be used when it comes to inanimate objects or abstract concepts. This rule is, however, no longer encouraged, even though some writers don’t approve of using 's when it comes to inanimate objects. Some examples:

  • The windows of the car are tinted.
  • The covers of the book are worn.

In these cases, avoiding the possessive altogether is preferrable. Instead, you could use the noun as an attributive, i.e. the car windows or the book covers.

Apostrophes should, however, not be used when it comes to personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). Personal pronouns form new words in the possessive: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs. None of them have apostrophes, because they are already in the possessive on their own. Some examples:

  • The car is mine.
  • The cat lost its ball of yarn.
  • The cake is theirs, so you shouldn’t eat it.
  • Take my heart, it’s yours.

3. Marking word structures

This is probably the least self-explanatory rule. Sometimes, you might want to show how a certain word is structured, to avoid confusion. However, most of the time the apostrophe is unnecessary in these cases, even though it can be used. Some examples to hopefully provide clarity:

  • There is a long list of do’s and don’ts.
  • Make sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Words of warning

Don’t use apostrophes with acronyms and years. The only time you would use an apostrophe in years is when you shorten it, in which case the first rule in this guide applies.

  • The 1960s were groovy.
  • I started photoshopping back in ‘03.
  • phnx joins a lot of RPs.
  • Carrie is a movie buff, and owns many DVDs.

Never use apostrophes to indicate plural forms. Be extra careful with the personal pronouns I mentioned earlier.

  • The cat is hers.
  • The Hammersmiths live in that house.
  • I’m forever alone because I have no friends.

Be careful with verbs which end in -y. You don’t use the apostrophe when conjugating these verbs — instead, -y becomes -ie-, like so:

  • The 5-year-old boy cries a lot.
  • No matter how hard she tries, she never succeeds.

Pay extra attention to the word it. When you use the apostrophe with the word it, i.e. it’s, it is a contraction of the words it is. If you want to indicate the possessive, you use its = something that belongs to it.

Considering this has been a very serious guide, I’d like to end it on a more light-hearted note. If you’re still unsure of when and how to use the apostrophe, I suggest you check out The Oatmeal’s epic guide in drawn form here.

Hopefully those of you who actually read this found it helpful. Good luck, young Padawans.

May 29 2012, 01:25 PM   •   58 notes
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