Writing Information

That Cute Lil Ol Apostrophe

Have you ever had a student write to tell you they've achieved Grade A's at exams? I have, and one of them was a grade A in English!

The apostrophe seems to be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language, and yet its use is really very simple.

There's really only one rule: an apostrophe is used to replace one or more missing letters.

Nothing more - nothing less.


A contraction is a word that is a shortened form of on or several words through the removal of one or more letters.

The following are examples of commonly used contractions.

Do not -> Don't
Did not -> Didn't
Can not -> Can't
Was not -> Wasn't
We have -> We've
They are -> They're
It is -> It's
It has -> It's

The following are examples of contractions used within a sentence:

The boy is walking the dog -> The boy's walking the dog
I did not steal the buns -> I didn't steal the buns
They were not walking to town -> They weren't walking to town

There are times when we need to write as we would speak. This is especially so when writing dialogue in fiction.

The title of this article "That Cute Li'l Ol' Apostrophe" is an example. Here I've used apostrophes to show the contractions that are made in colloquial speech, as in the case of

Little -> Li'l
Old -> Ol'

You may well believe that the first example is wrong; that there should be an extra apostrophe to denote the missing 'e' at the end of 'little'. That would be wrong.

We never use more than one apostrophe to a word.

While the general rule is to use the apostrophe in place of the last missing letter, such as in "shall not -> shan't", if we need to choose between missing letters that we'd normally pronounce and those that are silent, use the apostrophe to denote the missing sounds.

The use of apostrophes in contractions should be easy to remember. Just think of what the word you're using really represents. If it's two words that have been joined to make one, an apostrophe should be in there somewhere. Likewise if it's a truncated word.


First of all, a possessive is a word that owns the word that follows it. Confused? Let me show you.

My daughter's toys

The toys belong to my daughter, therefore daughter is the possessive word.

The shop's manager

While the shop doesn't actually own the manager, without the shop there would be no manager so shop becomes the possessive. However,

The manager's shop

would also be correct as the manager runs the shop.

Possessives are always nouns.

But hold on.... where are the missing letters?

Good question. To understand the answer, let's quickly zip back in time.

English is a Germanic language and written English originally shared possessive forms with German. If we go back to the 14th century, when Chaucer wrote "Canterbury Tales", we find that possessives didn't include apostrophes, but had an extra "e" added.

For example:

My daughteres toys / The manageres shop

Although that looks very clumsy to us, that was the accepted form of writing possessives in Chaucer's day. As the language has evolved, we've simply removed the extra 'e' and replaced it with an apostrophe. The same applies where a person's name is the possessive:

Lisaes toys / Jameses shop


Lisa's toys / James's shop

Although in the case of words or names that end with an 's', it's also acceptable to write

James' shop

So you see, even when using possessives, the apostrophe is replacing a missing letter.

The Exception To The Rule

The possessive form of 'it' should never include an apostrophe. "It's" is a contraction of "It is" while "its" is the possessive form of "it" which is a pronoun and belong alongside other pronouns such as "his", "hers", "ours", "yours" and "theirs", none of which have apostrophes.

Plural Possessives

The same rule as above applies but the apostrophe is moved.

My sisters' clothes / The dogs' bones

In these instances, the clothes belong to more than one sister and the bones belong to several dogs.

Chaucer would have written:

My sisterses clothes / The dogses bones

The last two letters have been removed and replaced by an apostrophe.

If, however, the possessive is a word that already donates the plural form of another word, as in the case of 'child/children', writing "the childrens' shoes" would be wrong. We already know from the word itself that it means more than one child, making "The children's shoes" the correct way of writing it.

Regular Plurals

Apostrophes are used ONLY in contractions and possessives.

Carrot's for sale - Many duck's on a pond - I bought two CD's - I washed his sock's

The above are all examples of an apostrophe being used to show that a word is plural. DON'T DO IT!

It's wrong.

Some otherwise excellent writers trip up on this point and by using an apostrophe where it isn't called for, the meaning of a sentence can change dramatically.

"Beware: Truck's turning!"

What does this mean? Does the turning belong to the truck? If so, why are we being warned of it? Not that I've ever known a truck to own a turning so I can only assume that the apostrophe has been misused.

"Beware: Trucks turning!"

That's better. Now we're being warned that trucks are likely to turn.


The correct use of apostrophes shouldn't be difficult to understand. It really is a case of "no missing letter - no apostrophe needed". If you remember that possessives also have missing letters and that 'its' is an exception, you'll never need make an apostrophe blunder again.

Sharon Jacobsen is a professional content and copy writer living in Cheshire, England. She's been writing in one form or another for more years than she cares to remember and becomes quite upset when people are unnecessarily sloppy with their apostrophes (or lack of them).

If you'd like Sharon to help you with articles or copy, please contact her through her website at http://www.sharon-jacobsen.co.uk


Why Rauner's ads rankle this writer
Chicago Tribune
A good headline is hard to write. That would make a decent headline, though in an old-fashioned print newspaper, where squeezing words into the space available can be like shoehorning a size 8 foot into a size 6 shoe, it might be trimmed to:.

and more »

The Rock River Times

Tech-Friendly: Use Polishmywriting.com to check your writing for style ...
The Rock River Times
Polishmywriting.com is a free, online service that allows to you check your writing projects for style, spelling and grammar errors. It is not a word processor; it fills the proofing gaps in online word processors such as Google Docs and Zoho Writer ...

Your Multicultural Content Writing Team Is More Important Than You Think
The Content Standard by Skyword (blog)
In a recent article, my colleague Tony Maiella explained the importance of transcreation in the content world, and how the process behind it can sometimes be challenging. That's because multicultural content writing is more of an art than a science. As ...

and more »

'Divergent' Author Veronica Roth Talks Writing Her Best-Selling Franchise ...
Huffington Post
By skipping out on keggers and focusing on her writing. "I didn't go out much," she told HuffPost Live's Caitlyn Becker in an interview Wednesday. "That sounds a little sad but it's true... I didn't get hangovers." Still, the incredibly successful (and ...

and more »

Giving writing a little punch
Central Kentucky News
Between “Poetry Punch,” alliteration games and s'more diagrams, participants of Winchester's second annual writing camp have learned that the creative writing process can actually be fun. About 30 children attended the non-profit Inkspire! Writing Camp ...

NPR (blog)

When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself
NPR (blog)
In the past year, my first in a prestigious Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, I have often felt conspicuous as a writer of color. I have felt a responsibility to speak up when race is discussed, but I have also resented this ...

and more »


Arianna Huffington: 'In writing as in life, don't be afraid to take risks and ...
Arianna Back in 2013, The Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington delivered a commencement address at Smith College. This act inspired her to write a book on looking beyond the acquisition of money and power to Thrive. Check out the ...

Small Business Trends

14 Tips for Using Your Blog to Start a Writing Business
Small Business Trends
If you want to start a business as a freelance writer, one of the easiest ways to get started is to create your own blog. Blogs are free on many platforms and relatively easy to set up. They can give you an opportunity to show off your writing skills ...

New York Times (blog)

Creative Types From Manolo Blahnik to Milton Glaser on Their Favorite Writing ...
New York Times (blog)
But for a select set of highly creative individuals, writing instruments are still in high demand. Here, authors, designers and artists ranging from Manolo Blahnik to Milton Glaser share brief odes to the pencils, pens and brushes to which they are ...

The Guardian

New Grub Street – a classic novel about writing, money and morality
The Guardian
The allure of the writing life is powerful to non-writers, and no wonder. You can do the work from home or on the fly, you can choose the subject, and the hours are unbeatable. It is still just mysterious enough to retain a low-level sort of glamour ...

Google News

home | site map | ZLX.com Index Page
© 2010