TIG Grammar Guide: Using Apostrophes

Work | TIG Grammar Guide: Using Apostrophes

WAS REMARKING recently how one of my pet peeves is when people don’t know the difference between its and it’s. Bad spelling and grammar in general are annoying, but when people mix up its and it’s, especially so. And in this age of social media everything, it seems as if we’re confronted with poor spelling and grammar constantly, making me wonder if it’s merely carelessness or a general decline.

Recently, on Instagram, Clare Waight Keller, the Artistic Director of Givenchy, had written on a post: “The dress that became the finale at my #hautecouture @givenchyofficial show Une Lettre d’Amour ? Typically I don’t finish my shows with a bride, normally I prefer to end with colour or black, but this dress captured everything about the story of the collection – a love letter to Sissinghurst and it’s extraordinary owner/gardener Vita Sackville-West and my own personal love letter to Hubert de Givenchy…” (@clarewaightkeller)

Was stunned, of course, that someone at her level could have made such an error, or worse, perhaps not actually know the difference between it’s and its? Hopefully it was just a typo. The word she used, it’s, is the contracted form of it is or it has. What Keller should have written was its, the possessive form of it, meaning ‘of it’, similar to words like his and hers, neither of which needs an apostrophe.

At about the same time, on another Instagram post from a very talented interior designer in our feed was a beautiful photo of the designer’s home, with the caption about “Sunday’s” and how he liked to spend them. What should have written was Sundays, plural. An example of how the word Sunday’s, with an apostrophe should be used would be, “Sunday’s the day that I like most” whereby the apostrophe indicates the missing letter “i” (Sunday is). Two more examples: Sundays are my favourite day. Are you watching Sunday’s game?

Because the errors and confusion are so prevalent, in this article, we’ll have a look at the proper way to use apostrophes, focussing on: their use after dates and acronyms; apostrophes to indicate the possessive; to indicate missing letters; and how apostrophes are sometimes used to indicate the structure of unusual words.

To indicate the possessive

An apostrophe can be used to show that one thing belongs to, or is connected to something, and is known as a possessive apostrophe:

This is Roséline’s book. / This is Charles’s book. (Charles is a singular noun so, even though it already ends in an “s”, you need to add an apostrophe and another “s” to show that the book belongs to Charles.)

This book is Michael’s. / Where are the men’s books?

That is the dog’s bed. (Dog is a singular noun, so adding an apostrophe and “s” shows that the bed belongs to the dog.)

What is the people’s opinion?

One should always choose one’s words carefully. / It is everyone’s duty to protest. / It was no one’s fault.

One week’s notice. / Two weeks’ notice.

Mr and Mrs Ashcroft live here. / They are the Ashcrofts. / It’s the Aschcrofts’ house.

Mr and Mrs Jones live here. / They are the Joneses. / It’s Mrs Jones’s house. / It’s the Joneses’ house.

The brothers’ home was nice. (Brothers is a plural noun that ends in an “s” so you don’t need to add another “s” after the apostrophe. You can just add an apostrophe to show the home belongs to the brothers.)

The children’s toys were educational. (Children is a plural noun that doesn’t end with an “s”, so you need to add an apostrophe and “s” to show that the toys belong to the children.)

Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) indicate the possessive by becoming a whole new word. These new words are already possessive, so they don’t need an apostrophe: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs.

The house is yours.
The dog broke its toy.
She said the book was hers.
They claimed it was theirs, but really it was ours.

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It's & Its

Since these two are the reason for this article, it’s worth taking a moment to understand the difference between the two.

It’s is the contracted form of ‘it has’ or ‘it is’ and is used in the following ways:

It’s been a long time since we spoke. (it has)
It’s such a beautiful day! (it is)
There is no way it’s going to be ready on time. (it is)
It’s been ready for weeks! (it has)

Its is the possessive form of it, meaning ‘of it’⏤possibly why the difference between it’s and its causes so many problems. Its, without an apostrophe, is a possessive form, where an apostrophe is usually required. It is similar to words like his and hers, neither of which needs an apostrophe.

Madrid is famous for its art galleries.
The building was the first of its kind.
The tree had lost all of its leaves.
Has your food lost its flavour?

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For contractions

Apostrophes can be used to indicate missing letters in the middle of words or phrases. A contraction is a shortened version of the written and spoken forms of a word, syllable, or word group, created by the omission of internal letters and sounds. Apostrophes are used to show that some letters have been omitted when joining words together.

For example, the words ‘you’ and ‘are’ together = you’re. The apostrophe takes the place of the removed letters (in this example, the letter a). Sometimes, however, letters are rearrange in the contraction of words: for example: will + not = won’t.

I’m sorry, but you can’t have it. (can not)
Don’t do that, please. (do not)
I’d like a slice of carrot cake, please. (I would)
We’d better hurry. ( we had; also: we would / we should)

To indicate the structure of unusual words

As mentioned above, apostrophes are used to show possession or to indicate a missing letter(s) or number(s). For some reason, people sometimes (incorrectly) insert an apostrophe when a word, acronym, or number is merely plural.

For example, in the sentence: Sofia grew up in the ’80s, there is no need for an apostrophe after the number as there is no possession or missing letters implied. It is simply plural. There is, however, an apostrophe before the number to indicate the missing 19.

Here are a few more examples:

Aren’t you glad you didn’t live in the 1900s?
My grandparents came to this country in the early ’70s.

The same rule holds for the plurals of capital letters:

Did you find the CDs? / Did you find the five CDs’ cases?
LEDs are the new light source.
There are three MDs in the building. / There are three MDs’ offices in the building.

Exception: Use an apostrophe with an initialism, if the meaning would be unclear without it:

Please cross your t’s. (Ts would look like a typo.)
Mind your p’s and q’s.
Getting A’s in the course is difficult.

A few words are sufficiently confusing that it is necessary to use an apostrophe to indicate how the word is constructed:

He bcc’d a copy to all the managers. (He sent a blind copy to all the managers.)
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. (Dot your is and cross your ts.)
A list of do’s and don’ts. (A list of DOs and DON’Ts.)

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