How to improve your punctuation

How to use apostrophes

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People don't worry about things like apostrophes any more, do they? Well, yes they do. Although it probably is possible to get your meaning across without using apostrophes, your teachers, tutors, lecturers, examiners, and most importantly, your employers, will expect you to be able to use apostrophes correctly.

So, what's an apostrophe? Here's a clue: I've used three apostrophes on this line. An apostrophe is a raised comma; it's used to show that a letter is missing from a word. Or, in other words, it's used to make a group of words shorter: to contract them into one word. Take a look at the following examples:

'We will not' becomes 'we won't'

'We would' becomes 'we'd'

'I will' becomes 'I'll'

'You will' becomes 'you'll'

An apostrophe can also be used to show possession: to show something owns something else. But more of that later. For now we'll stick to using apostrophes to form contractions.

Activity: Using apostrophes to form contractions - 5 minutes

1. The table below contains lists of word combinations. Decide how you could turn these combinations into contractions. The first one has been done for you.

Word combination Contraction Word combination Contraction
We are We've They are  
She has   It is  
We would   They have  
Who will   Who is  
What is   We will not  
Who have   Would not  
Have not   He has  
I would   Did not  
You will not   He will  
You are   You have  
How did you do?

When you have completed the table, check your answers below.

Recommended Further Reading

Next, we'll look at using apostrophes to show possession (to show that something 'owns' another thing). Take a look at the following examples:

John's book

The teacher's pet

Girls' coats

Lucy's shopping

When you are using apostrophes to show possession, you need to consider whether the thing doing the possessing is singular or plural. Words that end in s also need special consideration:

Warning! You do not need an apostrophe to show something is a plural; this is known as the 'greengrocer's' apostrophe, and you have probably often seen examples of it. Take a quick look at some of the examples collected by the The Apostrophe Protection Society: www.apostrophe.org.uk/ . Yes, there really is an apostrophe protection society - the apostrophe is a punctuation mark that inspires strong feelings in many people. You do not need an apostrophe in the following examples:

apples for sale

1000s of reduced CDs

cauliflowers 2 for £1

You also need to be careful with possessive pronouns; this is a scary grammar-term for his, hers, theirs, ours, yours and its. These words don't need apostrophes as they are possessive pronouns; that is, they show ownership. For example...

Whose dog is that? It is hers.

You may never be tempted to write her's or your's, but what about it's? It's and its are very commonly confused. Remember, it's is a contraction of it is. Its is a possessive pronoun that tells us that it owns something. For instance...

The car's doors fell off, and then its engine failed.

Activity: Using possessive apostrophes - 5 minutes

This activity will provide a gentle introduction to using apostrophes to show possession. The possessive apostrophe can be tricky, but it helps if you try to remember who is possessing what.

For example, if two cats have a bowl each, you would write the cats' bowls. There are two cats, so the apostrophe goes after the s, and it is the cats that possess the bowls, so bowls doesn't require an apostrophe. Easy, eh? Don't worry, practice will help you get the hang of it!

1. Decide where the possessive apostrophes should go in the phrases below. The first one has been done for you.

  • The boys dog barked
  • The teachers book
  • The four teachers classes
  • My parents house
  • Three buildings doors and windows
  • The teams managers performance
  • One weeks experience
  • Three meters worth
  • 100s of free CDs
  • The two princesses frogs
  • Jesus disciples
  • Sarah and Davids party
How did you do?

Click here for the answers.

Next we will look at how to use semicolons.

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