When to use an apostrophe (and apostrophe mistakes to avoid)

When to use an apostrophe (and apostrophe mistakes to avoid)

Trouble telling your ‘its’ from your ‘it’s’? Here are some simple apostrophe rules that will help keep your writing correct and compelling

Apostrophe mistakes seem to be one of the most common errors in published copy — or perhaps they seem more frequent because of how noticeable they are! It’s all too easy to find humorous collections of the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, (so-called for its ubiquity on shop signs), and the last thing you want is to end up on such a list. If there’s a punctuation mistake you don’t want to make, it’s this one.

So to help you avoid that, we’ll be going over all you need to know about when to use an apostrophe, from plurals and possessives to elision and initialisms.

Closed shop sign
Quick test! Does the apostrophe look like it’s in the right place here?

When to use an apostrophe

First up, here are some guidelines for beautiful apostrophe usages. Do use an apostrophe:

To show possession

In English, possession is shown by adding an ‘‘s” as a suffix to the noun which possesses the subject of the sentence. Here’s one example:

The copywriter’s books.

For any linguistics fans out there, this is English’s genitive case, and is often called the possessive apostrophe.

When using a plural noun, which usually ends with an ‘s’ anyway, simply tack an apostrophe on the end of the word, as such:

The copywriters’ books.

In contractions

The other common use of the apostrophe is in contractions — an indispensable tool for a copywriter!  Contractions are a form of elision where two words combine to form a single word. The blending between the words is marked by the apostrophe: the glue that makes two (or more) words into one.

Importantly, contractions can make or break your tone of voice because they’re a noticeable feature of informality. Want to seem approachable and down-to-earth? Opt for ‘can’t’ instead of ‘cannot’ or ‘that’s’ instead of ‘that is’.

On the other hand, if you’re going for something a bit more formal, cutting out the contractions is a guaranteed way to sound more measured and professional. Whichever style you go for, it’s important to know when to use them.

Person writing by hand in a notebook

Apostrophe mistakes to avoid

In a plural

This mistake is probably the most common of them all, and it’s easy to see why. Plurals end in ‘s’, possessives end in ‘s’, and when you have words flying out of your fingertips, it’s very easy for your brain to get the two mixed up and insert that cheeky apostrophe on automatic. They sound identical, after all, and humans are hardwired for speech.

But plurals (not plural’s) don’t use it, meaning that this mistake is a useful one to look out for when proofreading.

There is one exception to this, though: plurals of single lowercase letters. It’s a bit of a niche case, but if you’re talking about your ‘a’s’ and your ‘i’s’, the apostrophe helps distinguish it from ‘as’ and ‘is’.

In decades and years

When mentioning a period of years (1920s, 1500s, and so on), one common mistake is to place an apostrophe before the ‘s’. However, the correct format is just to add the plural ‘s’ at the end — no apostrophe necessary.

There is one case where an apostrophe could be used in years, and that’s before the number. Think ‘60s or ‘90s, where it’s generally clear what century is being discussed. In this case, the apostrophe stands in for the missing numbers.

For abbreviations

Plurals of abbreviations such as CEO, HGV, or SME don’t need an apostrophe. Instead, write them as CEOs, HGVs, and SMEs. In this case, the varying capitalisation works to show that the ‘s’ isn’t part of the abbreviation. Instead, it’s marking a plural.

In the wrong ‘its’

There’s one handy rule to remember this by: if your ‘it’s’ can be split into ‘it is’, then it’s a contraction and needs the apostrophe to make sense.

It’s undeniable that apostrophe mistakes are very noticeable.

The other ‘its’ is what’s known as a possessive pronoun, and shows that one noun belongs to another.

The fluffy dog chased its own tail.

You can think of it a bit like the distinction between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, or ‘she’s’ and ‘her’ for something that has two distinct forms. 

In plurals of non-nouns used as nouns

It’s an unwieldy phrase, but you’ll find them right in the title: dos and don’ts, whys and hows, haves and have nots. It’s tempting to put an apostrophe there because these are words that aren’t usually used as nouns. But the same rule applies as with noun plurals: just an ‘s’ is fine.

Grammar checking software to highlight apostrophe mistakes

In short…

Keep all of these handy apostrophe rules in mind, and you’ll be on your way to more accurate, professional copy. And don’t worry if you make a few apostrophe mistakes initially — the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.

On the lookout for strong, compelling copy for your business? Our experienced copywriters are just the people for the job. We thoroughly proofread all our copy for mistakes (apostrophes or otherwise) to make sure it gets to you exactly as it should be: accurate, persuasive, and easy to read. 

Get in touch with a member of the team today, or find us on social media at LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.