I was going to write a B post today (since it’s an A-Z and I wrote about Allusion last week) but I decided to stick on A for another week. Why?
Apostrophe abuse. It’s the one grammatical horror that makes my eye twitch, and I see it everywhere. Many people have difficulty knowing when and when not to use one, so – as a public service and for the good of my twitchy eye – I’m going to explain when to use an apostrophe.
An apostrophe is used for two reasons:
- To show possession
It is never used to mark a plural. It may occasionally be used with a plural, but even then, only to show possession.
No, not that kind of contraction.
A contraction happens when we ‘contract’ two words into one.
Some widely-used examples are:
- It is = it’s
- You are = you’re
- They are = they’re
- We are = we’re
- Who is = who’s
- I have = I’ve
As you can see, we use the apostrophe to replace the missing letter or letters.
Now you’re just being silly. I mean the kind of possession that means something belonging to someone. Something that we own.
We use an apostrophe to denote possession for nouns but not pronouns.
- Cheryl’s cat
- Bill’s bicycle
- Annie’s fudge
- Scotland’s border
- Humanity’s conscience
- My cat
- His bicycle
- Her fudge
- Its border
- Their conscience
The easy way to remember this is if the object is owned by someone or something with a name, then we use an apostrophe. If not and a more generic pronoun is used, then there is no need for apostrophe.
On the rare occasion that we use an apostrophe with a plural, we use it to show the possession and not the plural.
We went to the Holdsworths’ house for tea.
Note how the apostrophe in this case comes after the ‘s’ for the plural? That’s because the apostrophe shows possession (the house belongs to the Holdsworths) and not the plural.
The Holdsworths came to my house for tea.
Note how, since the possession in this case is singular (my house), the plural in this case (the Holdsworths) has no apostrophe.
We went to Mr. Holdsworth’s house for tea.
Note how the apostrophe in this case comes before the ‘s’? This is because there is possession but we’re only talking about one person – in this case, Mr. Holdsworth.
I think that explains when we should or shouldn’t use an apostrophe but just in case, here’s an example of where we often get it wrong.
There, they’re and their
There = a place: The book is over there.
Since there is no possession or contraction, there is no apostrophe.
They’re = they are: They’re coming over for tea.
Since it’s a contraction, the apostrophe is used in place of the missing letter ‘a’.
Their = something belongs to them: We gave them back their keys.
Since this is possession but no name is given, no apostrophe is necessary.
So, when trying to decide which is correct, look at the sentence you’re writing and ask yourself whether it’s a place, a contraction or possession (and if it’s possession, whether or not a noun (name) or pronoun is used).
I know, there’s a lot to remember! But I hope this helps a little.
Let me know in the comments if there are any instances where you’re still not sure whether to use an apostrophe, and I’ll explain from your example.