A beginner’s guide to apostrophes

by limebirdmike

It’s fair to say the internet has been a blight on good grammar. Forums and social media sites are literally brimming with poorly used apostrophes, and one of my biggest bugbears is the mis-use of their, there, and they’re. For this week’s blog then, I thought I’d write something about apostrophes, and how to use them!


Apostrophes are typically used to either denote possession, or to mark a contraction. We shall deal with the case of possession shortly, but to start with we will discuss contractions.

Contractions are actually fairly simple. The way to make sure you get them right is to read over your work and consider what it is you’re actually trying to say. An all too common error I always seem to find myself coming across in editing people’s work is the confusion of “your” with “you’re” and “there” with “their” and “they’re”.

Say the following through slowly to yourself:

You’re going to pay for that.” – “You are going to pay for that.”

You’re looking good today.” – “You are looking good today.”

Your help is very much appreciated.”

The same applies to “there”, “their” and “they’re”, remembering all the while that “there” denotes where something is, “their” denotes that something belongs to a group, and “they’re” denotes that they are doing something.


We move briefly then, to possessives, another cause of confusion.

A long time ago now I wrote a similar blog to this on the back of an appalling example of grammar from a writer and English student no-less! In her Facebook post the lady in question posted the following:

“God only know’s whats in a man’s heart”. The apostrophe in “know’s” is completely unnecessary and poor grammar for a number of reasons. Firstly, knowledge doesn’t possess you, you possess knowledge. Even then, the verb “to know” already implies ownership on the part of the individual (in this case, God). We do not for example say “Mike hold’s the ball”, just as we do not therefore say “Mike know’s the answer.” The use of an apostrophe here then is incorrect on a number of different levels.

A mistake many people make is to confuse singular and plural possessives. These first two are fairly simple:

“The cat’s claws.” (i.e. the claws of a single cat)

“The cats’ claws.”  (i.e. the claws of more than one cat)

The problems come however when you use a plural, for the solution is to place the apostrophe as you would for the singular:

“The people’s champion.” (i.e. the champion of the people – “people” already means more than one person so you don’t say “the peoples’ champion.”)

In the case of names ending in the letter S, you actually have a choice. The more archaic (and often my preferred) option, is to say “Louis’ hat”, but you can equally say “Louis’s hat” – you just need to be consistent and remember the audience you are writing for. In some instances it might be preferable to use the second option, especially when writing for children!


Many people don’t realise that time is possessive and obeys the same principles as does a cat or any other possessor.

“A weeks time” therefore becomes “A week’s time” (i.e. the time of a single week).

“Two weeks time” becomes “Two weeks’ time” (i.e. the time of two weeks).

Its and it’s

A common mistake that even I make on occasion is the use of its and it’s. As is the case with so many facets of the English language, there are actually more exceptions than rules, and so you should remember that it’s is a contraction of “it is” and does not mean something that belongs to “it”.

“its” on the other hand, does denote possession. So…

“It’s time we made a move” (i.e. it is time we made a move)

“It’s nice to see you” (i.e. it is nice to see you)

“Its claws were as sharp as knives” (i.e. the claws of whatever it is, were sharp as knives)

Until next time,



24 Comments to “A beginner’s guide to apostrophes”

  1. Awesome post, Mike.

    I am a freelance writing coach and editor, and even I don’t know all there is to know regarding grammar and punctuation. The worst is when I’m editing someone else’s novel that’s especially untidy–the words start blurring and I forget all the rules I should know by heart! So, I do refer to guides upon occasion. But, I have to say that a lot of guides are confusing to read! Often, they muddle my particular situation even more!

    You wrote this so clearly that I’m thinking you should write a grammar guide and sell it! 🙂 I love your examples because you went out of your way to break them down into tiny, swallow-able bits. Thank you. I now intend to add you your post to my grammar file.

  2. Great job Mike, as always.

    On occasion, I do this incorrectly – ” “The people’s champion.” (i.e. the champion of the people – “people” already means more than one person so you don’t say “the peoples’ champion.”) ” This is definitely one that I forget, so thanks for reminding me! Got any more of these under your grammar belt? 🙂

    • A common one I encounter is people often neglecting to think how their use of an apostrophe might affect the meaning they are trying to convey.

      For instance I work in the healthcare industry, thus I do often find myself correcting references to “patient’s” to “patients'”. Makes quite a bit difference in marketing I can tell you as either you have just one patient, or you have many!

  3. I have to second Kate’s comment! This was simple, clear, and concise; thank you.

    I have worked hard on getting the apostrophe burned into my brain (I didn’t pay much attention at school…) and get it right most of the time now.

    The thing that I currently get wrong the most is not punctuation but a homophone. I’ve lost count of the times when, upon proofreading, I find that I have planned to write ‘led’ (the past and past participle of lead) and actually write ‘lead’ the metallic element. It must be the engineer in me trying to assert his dominance!

    • Thanks for your comment! Don’t worry, the homophone thing gets everyone. I’m not so bad with it in shorter pieces (<2-3k), but in larger works I find they really can slip through my proof-reading net!

  4. This is great. It’s so frustrating to read anything with poor grammar.

  5. OK, the Old Curmudgeon raises her head again! I’m an old-time student of grammar and the daughter of a high-school English teacher who was a charter member of the grammar police. What do they teach in school these days, anyway? Do English teachers no longer care whether their students acquire a basic knowledge of the English language? We used to diagram sentences – yes, that quaint practice that probably most of you have never heard of. I can’t remember now exactly how to do it, but I never had any trouble with it when I was in high school and I always thought it was fun! I’m sure not all the students agreed with me, however! It teaches you how a sentence is put together – how the parts relate – what hooks on to what – basically, what makes sense.
    But back to apostrophes … Unfortunately, I am compelled to point out that in the sentence ““God only know’s whats in a man’s heart,” you, Mike, forgot to note that “whats” is really “what is” and needs an apostrophe in it.

    • Thanks Lorinda. Yes, I did neglect to mention the case of the “whats”. In my defense, the misuse of the apostrophe in “know’s” was so infuriating I got a little caught up in my grammar rage! Apologies 🙂

  6. “It’s fair to say the internet has been a blight on good grammar.” Would that your meaning was a clear as your explanation of apostrophes. Are you saying that the internet *causes* bad grammar, or that we’re forced to see too much of it because of the internet? People bring their own use or misuse to the web; they don’t suddenly put apostrophes in the wrong place or leave them out, just because they’re now writing on the web.

    • You raise an interesting point — a bit of a philosophical dilemma in fact. I think when I was referring to the internet I was referring as much to the people that use it as I was to the internet as a physical thing. The “internet” is a very interesting term. I feel it might now be something of an abstract noun in the way it’s just as much about a sort of “collective consciousness” as it is a way of linking computers together. What does everyone else think?

      In terms of the latter part of your comment, it’s true, people do bring their own poor grammar to the web, BUT, there is also a wider issue here connected with the social media / internet / texting culture which nowadays *actively encourages* poor grammar, colloquialisms, abbreviations and what we as writers might call “poor grammar”. Is it a case of the chicken or the egg?

      You raise some interesting topics for debate — thanks for your comment 🙂

  7. What annoys me is what goes on in primary schools where the grammar grounding should start. I obviously can’t comment about all primary schools, but as a parent, and someone who works in education, I can comment on some. What I have noticed is that when they are particularly working on English/literacy, then the grammar gets corrected, but in the other subjects it is not. My children have often come home from school with science/history/geography/whatever work, with lots of ticks and comments about it being excellent work and yet the grammar errors have not been corrected or pointed out. I don’t get that. When I was at school, it didn’t matter what subject we were working on, everything about the work was corrected.

    It was quite scary writing this response in case I got anything wrong, but phew, I think I’ve made it to the end without any mistake’s! 😉

    • I appreciate that one! I’m always putting a comment on a blog and then just as I hit “post,” I see something wrong – usually a typo. I’m very bda where trnasposing is concerned!
      In response to your comment, it’s quite possible that in this day the science/history/geography teachers aren’t well versed in grammar, either!

  8. By the way, anybody who is interested in the etymology of “its” might go to http://bit.ly/yFZjAh (Online Etymology Dictionary) and follow that up with a search under ” ‘s .” Basically, the apostrophe in any possessive comes from the fact that the singular possessive in Middle English was -es, and when the “e” dropped out of the pronunciation, an apostrophe was substituted (since an apostrophe indicates an omission). Interestingly, the article says that the original spelling of “its” was “it’s” but this was abandoned possibly on analogy with “hers, yours, theirs,” etc. However, it seems to be a bad analogy, since “hers,” etc., is really a noun use of the word (“The book was hers;” you never say, “This was hers book” and yet you could say “This was its book” or “This book was its.”)
    And if you think “this book was its” is awkward and unlikely, wait till you try to write for an intelligent being who is neuter, like my Warrior and Worker termites! “This was its” could easily be an appropriate sentence where they are concerned!

  9. This is one of those things that I like to see mentioned and discussed often. So many people make these mistakes and the more times you see it hopefully the more it sinks in. Carry on the crusade! 🙂

  10. Here’s a horror story! This quote comes from The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/15/us/15arkansas.html. The state of Arkansas has passed a law that the possessive of Arkansas is Arkansas’s. Raise them real smart down there!

  11. Sorry, not quote, but reference.

  12. Thanks for this great reminder on the proper use of apostrophes, something that I’m sure we can all admit to misusing at times. I know myself, I mix up the it’s and its. We can all use a refresher on a subject like this, to help us become better writers.

  13. Yay! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who grits her teeth every time someone uses it’s when they need to use its. Or your and you’re. I’ve included one or two posts on my blog about misuse of words and the apostrophe — well, I should say that someone I know well — Beryl Cuda — occasionally comes out of hiding to gripe on my blog about grammar and other things that rile her. You and she would get along, Limebirdmike!

  14. It drives me nuts when people talk about the decade of the 1980s and call it the 80’s. Any idea where that apostrophe idea came from?

  15. re the comment on primary schools – I’m still noticing disastrous apostrophes in teaching second and third level uni. I go through the basics with my students and they all nod sagely then do exactly the same thing on their next essays. I’m all for relaxed grammar on blog comments pages – but uni papers???! Now I need a Bex and a good lie down.

  16. Great post, thank you so much! The s’ and ‘s at the end of a plural get me every time. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do my best proofreading right after I hit “send.”

  17. Nice to see someone get it right. It will help a lot of folks. English is one of the three most difficult languages in the world, and apostrophes are one of the reasons why. Great job.

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