Posted by: wordsmithsuk | March 12, 2012

Overcoming apostrophe catastrophes

The apostrophe is probably the most misused item of punctuation in our language. Its use is still evolving and different rules apply in different countries, and even in different contexts in the UK. So do bear with me as I try to explain.

The apostrophe is mainly used to express possession, as in ‘the boy’s book’ and ‘the girls’ dresses’. So the basic rule is to put the apostrophe before the s when the noun is singular and after the s when the noun is plural.

The situation gets a little complicated when the singular word already ends in s. I’m thinking of words like James or Thomas or Mrs Jones. In these cases you can do one of two things. You can write James’  book or James’s book. Most business English experts seem to prefer the more elegant ‘James’ book’ nowadays – in the UK at any rate.

Another complication is how to deal with irregular plurals – where you do not make the plural by adding an s, but by changing the spelling of the word. The plural of man is men, the plural of child is children, the plural of sheep is sheep and so on. The rule is to treat these irregular plurals like a singular and to use apostrophe s: men’s room, sheep’s eyes and children’s toys.

Note that the possessive form of ‘it’ never takes an apostrophe. So, in the phrase ‘The dog was chasing its tail’ there is no apostrophe in the word ‘its’. Look at the example howler in the pink photo above. If you call your business ‘apostrophe’, you should probably take time to proof read your slogan!

The apostrophe is also used to indicate that part of a word is missing. If you don’t want to write ‘I have’ simply write ‘I’ve’. If you don’t want to write ‘did not’ simply write ‘didn’t‘. If you don’t want to write ‘it is’ simply put ‘it’s‘. You simply use apostrophes to indicate that there are some letters missing.

The other rule about apostrophes is never to use them to make a plural.

Not Rather
Three book’s Three books
Six MP’s Six MPs
The 1990’s The 1990s
Taxi’s Taxis

The only time that apostrophised plurals are allowed is where they make the meaning clearer.For example, how would you write p’s and q’s, or do’s and don’ts?

But as a general rule, the grocer’s plural is unmatched in its power to undermine the credibility of both message and writer. Look at the example in the photo on the right – look carefully and you will see them everywhere!

How Word Smiths can help

There are a few ways in which Word Smiths can help you to improve your skills in business writing and grammar.

  • Do several people in your department or team want to develop their skills? Ask us to provide a proposal for an in-house course on business writing.
  • Would you like to join people from other organisations who may be struggling with aspects of minute-taking? Find out about our occasional open courses on this topic.
  • Do you need a cost-effective way of improving your skills quickly and flexibly? Check our audio CD ‘Effective Business Writing for Success’ with it’s related booklet and online resources.
  • Finally – do get in touch with your particular questions and problems about grammar and writing in general. We are always happy to help!



  1. It took me years to understand that its and it’s were different words. It was confusing. ‘its’ means that it belongs to ‘it’, so it’s possessive, yet it has no apostrophe. So why does ‘it’s’, that means it is, get the apostrophe? 🙂
    Nice post!

    • I agree it’s very confusing! I often have to stop and think myself! But that means that I rarely get it wrong nowadays – although there have been some embarrassing mistakes in the past.

  2. […] Overcoming apostrophe catastrophes ( Share this:EmailFacebookRedditDiggTwitterStumbleUponTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged it's versus its, its, Noun, Possessive case. Bookmark the permalink. ← H is for How Great Thou Art […]

  3. […] Overcoming apostrophe catastrophes ( […]

  4. […] Overcoming apostrophe catastrophes ( […]

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