Apostrophes are a commonly confused and eternally frustrating form of punctuation.

Restaurant menus, chalkboards, and Facebook posts are often littered with incorrectly placed apostrophes.

While seeing a misplaced apostrophe may cause an involuntary eye twitch on my behalf, I can also understand the confusion.

An example

Recently, a client asked me where to put an apostrophe in this phrase: our customers futures. I explained it would depend on the number of customers she was referring to. If it was a single customer, the phase should be our customer’s future. If referring to multiple customers, it would be our customers’ futures.

In this instance, however, I recommend changing the sentence to the future of our customers. If a sentence confuses you, it is sure to confuse your reader.

How do I know where to correctly use an apostrophe?

In most cases, apostrophes are used to either show possession or the contraction of two words.

Apostrophes signify possession

Apostrophes show that something or someone is in possession of something: they own it or belong to it.

Singular Nouns

You use ’s with singular common and proper nouns, so you talk about the chair’s legs and Seren’s legs with the apostrophe between the last letter and the s. Note how the plural legs does not have an apostrophe. 

When a proper noun ends with an s, then you should include both the apostrophe and the s, not just an apostrophe. So it would be Thomas’s house or Yass’s housing. I’d probably avoid that last one by talking about housing in Yass instead.

This works the same way with business names that end with an s. I find this appears awkward in written text, so where possible I avoid using a possessive apostrophe at all.  As an example, I will usually write about Practical Systems software rather than Practical Systems’s software even though both are correct.

This rule causes plenty of debate and exceptions, but I’ll defer to the Style Manual’s ruling* here and say that proper nouns require both an apostrophe and an s to signify possession.

Possessive pronouns (mine, ours, its, hers, his, theirs) do not use an apostrophe. I will look further at pronouns and apostrophes below.

Plural Nouns

You do not use apostrophes to signify a plural.

If a common noun uses s to signify it is a plural, then the possessive form takes an apostrophe but not an s. When a plural noun does not end in an s, then there is an apostrophe and an s just like singular nouns. Here’s an example to show the difference.

If I had one fox, I would discuss the fox’s legs. If I had one ox, I would discuss the ox’s legs.

If I had two foxes, then I would talk about the foxes’ legs. If I had two oxen, then I would talk about the oxen’s legs.

Apostrophes signify a contraction

I’d be surprised if you can’t think of any grammatical contractions we use every day (hint: there are two in this sentence).

When two words are joined together in a grammatical contraction, the apostrophe represents the letters that have been removed.

So in the sentence above, the words I would were contracted to I’d and can not was contracted to can’t.

If letters are removed from more than one section of the words, then an apostrophe is only placed in one section. Therefore, the old-fashioned shall not is contracted to shan’t. Usually, when a single word is contracted you do not use an apostrophe.

The word it’s stands for it is, while its announces possession without an apostrophe just like other personal pronouns (see above).

So using our example of the chair, we would talk about its legs, but if we were discussing the four things at the bottom of a chair, we might say it’s a leg. We would also say the chair is theirs or perhaps there’s a chair – but that’s a whole blog post in its own right!

Place names, institutions, decades, and special days

In most instances, you do not include apostrophes in place names, institutions, or the names of days of national or international significance. These phrases become proper nouns in their own right. Hence, Bakers Creek and Coopers Plains do not have an apostrophe, nor should state institutions like schools or government departments.

When talking about the name of decades, such as the 1990s, there is no apostrophe. Placing the apostrophe between the number and the s is a common error that I find immensely frustrating!  Technically, ’90s should have an apostrophe at the beginning but both ’90s and 90s are now acceptable usage.

I’m going to be controversial now. I do not believe that special days such as Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Womens Day, should have apostrophes. These have become proper nouns in their own right, owned by everyone and no one. To avoid confusion, and to save characters, they should be done away with.

Like many writing conventions, the rules in this section can change depending on the country, business, or medium. 

I always determine a client’s house style before making editing decisions in grey areas.

Can you think of any apostrophe use that I have missed?

*I use the Australian Government’s Style Manual as my definitive guide to writing for an Australian audience. I also refer to News Limited’s Style as well as Scarry and Scarry’s The Writer’s Workplace.

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