If you feel dismayed, confused or in a complete muddle about apostrophes, you are not alone. Some people have given up completely and decided not to use the apostrophe at all for fear of getting it wrong. Others use them randomly hoping they get it right at least some of the time.
It’s hard to believe that such a tiny mark on the page could wreak havoc, but incorrect placement of the apostrophe can create misunderstanding and annoyance. Misuse of the apostrophe can also make your work look less professional. So, it’s worth getting your head around the correct use of apostrophes.
What is the purpose of the apostrophe?
Although seemingly insignificant, apostrophes do have two important functions. The first is to show ownership; the second is to indicate the omission of letters (contraction).
Ownership. First, decide how many owners there are (one or more than one). If you place the apostrophe before the ‘s’ it shows that there is only one owner. If the apostrophe is placed after the ‘s’ it means there are many owners.
The sales representative’s figures = one person’s sales figures
The sales representatives’ figures = more than one person’s sales figures
By misplacing the apostrophe in this example, you could give credit to one person, when the credit is due to the whole team’s hard work.
Contraction. A contraction is where one or more letters have been taken out in order to join two words.
We’re going to the conference = we are definitely going to the conference
We were going to the conference = we had planned to go but now we’re not
One of the most common apostrophe errors is with it’s and its. This pesky little word is an exception to the rule.
It’s = it is (always)
Its = belonging to
The possum is carrying a baby on its back = The back belongs to the possum
The possum is carrying a baby on it’s back = The possum is carrying a baby on it is back
Unfortunately, the grammar checker in Microsoft Word can’t always determine the correct placement of the apostrophe. So, it’s up to you to:
1. Work out whether you’re indicating ownership
2. Decide whether you wish to use a contraction
3. Be vigilant about ‘it’s’ and ‘its’.
Is it time to ditch the apostrophe?
Depending on where you place the apostrophe, the meaning of a sentence can change. So we do need it sometimes for clarity. When used correctly, the apostrophe is also a useful shortcut to indicate ownership by taking the place of the word ‘of’; for example:
The report of the manager = The manager’s report
To me, using ‘of’ rather than the apostrophe creates a cumbersome sentence construction, so I will use an apostrophe. Contractions are useful when we want to adopt a less formal and more conversational tone in our writing (‘you’ll’ rather than ‘you will’).
Perhaps one day the apostrophe will become obsolete and we will find an alternative way to ensure clarity. For now, the apostrophe gets my vote as a useful writing tool, when used correctly.