Apostrophes – Why is it so difficult to know how to use these little squiggles?

Writing Well: Tips to help you to improve your writing

I was recently impressed with my seven-year-old nephew’s message in a family birthday card.

While his writing was very neat and his message cute, it was his grasp of the correct use of an apostrophe that was impressive.

It was a simple message: “Hazza’s wishing you a happy birthday”. The fact that he correctly used an apostrophe to signify a contraction – Hazza is – was the real kicker.

I’ve worked with tertiary-educated professionals who still struggle with this little punctuation squiggle.

So if you’re not quite sure where to place an apostrophe, here are the simple rules:

Possessive

One of the biggest crimes against punctuation occurs when people incorrectly use apostrophes to indicate ownership.

For example, if you are referring to a bag that belongs to John you would write “John’s bag”. This can be tricky when dealing with words that are already plurals. So if you were talking about the bags that belong to the children, you would write “the children’s bags”. Often this is incorrectly written as “the childrens’ bags”. However, as there is no such word as childrens, the apostrophe should be before the letter s.

To check if you’re placing the apostrophe in the correct place, change the sentence around slightly. If you’re talking about the girls’ bags make sure that you mean the bags that belong to the girls (ie. plural). If you write the girl’s bags, you mean bags that belong to one girl.

Plurals

Often the rules for possessive apostrophes are applied, incorrectly, when using plurals.

This is why you’ll often see signs such as “Apple’s and orange’s for sale” or “Choose from our range of cake’s, coffee’s and liqueur’s”.

None of these words need an apostrophe. They are simple plurals and adding the letter s to the end of the word means that there is more than one of each item. Therefore, the signs should advertise apples, oranges, cakes, coffees and liqueurs. There should not be a single apostrophe in sight.

Contractions

If you are contracting one word, or two words into one, use an apostrophe to indicate the omitted letters.

Therefore, couldn’t (could not), don’t (do not), we’re (we are) all require an apostrophe in the space where the letter or letters should have been placed.

Bottom Line

Once you know the rules for apostrophes you’ll soon join the legions of grammar grouches who itch to get out the red pen every time they see a sentence such as: “Lets celebrate summer with our sale on dress’s and short’s. All womens’ wear marked down.”

Next time you go to use an apostrophe follow Hazza’s lead and make sure you’re using it correctly.

 

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