Apostrophe – The Long and Short of It

The apostrophe is that little punctuation mark that is most useful in any number of different ways. However it is also much abused – people often use it inappropriately to indicate plurals or as an appendage to pronouns. So do you cringe when you read the apostrophe appended to someone’s family name (as in Smith’s on the name plate outside the home) or to indicate possession (e.g. when people incorrectly say her’s)?

When to use the apostrophe

The apostrophe can be used for shortening a word or for truncating a phrase of two words into one. For example:

  • do not —> don’t
  • you are —> you’re
  • is not —> isn’t
  • cannot —> can’t
  • have not —> haven’t
  • will not —> won’t

These are all correct, but may not be advisable in formal writing or speech. The thing to watch out for is the correct placement of the apostrophe.

The apostrophe is also very commonly used to indicate possession:

  • John’s book
  • Jerry’s cat
  • boy’s shorts
  • girl’s dress

When used with respect to singular nouns, the apostrophe is used before the ‘s’:

  • my daughter’s school

However when used in respect of plural nouns, the apostrophe is after the ‘s’:

  • my daughters’ school or schools (to indicate the school of more than one daughter).

Its or It’s?

This can be rather confusing for a lot of people. The rule of thumb here is, when you use it’s see if you can elongate the word to ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ and still have it fit correctly in the sentence – only then would you use the apostrophe before the ‘s’. If it cannot be lengthened in this way, you probably meant to use its and not it’s.

  • The dog wagged its (the dog’s) tail.
  • It’s (it has) been a good dog today.

When not to use the apostrophe

Too many people use the apostrophe rather wantonly to indicate plurals. In most cases this is wrong (though there are exceptions). So it is never the ‘Soft Drink’s Shelf’ it is simply the ‘Soft Drinks Shelf’. It isn’t my CD’s; it should be my CDs. There is no need for the apostrophe there.

Also never use the apostrophe with possessive pronouns. So it should never be her’s or their’s; these are incorrect.

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