Correct grammar and punctuation can be the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. As if English grammar rules were not baffling enough, punctuation howlers really turn things complicated. Of all punctuation marks, the Apostrophe has decidedly generated the most angst among the writing fraternity. I trip over a few of these myself.

An apostrophe looks the same as a single quotation mark. It is used in the following three cases:

  1. To show possession in a noun.
  2. In the case of contraction where do not turns to don’t.
  3. Making plurals of individual characters like a’s and b’s.

Each usage comes with its own rules.

Apostrophe to Show Possession:

An apostrophe can be used to show possession without using the words ‘of’ or ‘belongs to’, and without using pronouns like his, her, their, its, etc.

Singular Nouns

In singular nouns, we add apostrophe + s to show possession.

Example: the boy’s scooter or a man’s honour.

Singular Nouns that End with ‘s’

In singular nouns that end with ‘s’, most people follow the same rule of adding an apostrophe + s, while only some feel the extra ‘s’ at the end is unnecessary. The former however I meant to reflect the pronunciation required in such cases.

Example: the grass’s length or the class’s morale.

Proper Nouns that End with ‘s’

Another debated case of apostrophe use is where proper nouns like Texas, Jones, or Hastings come into play. Although both styles of apostrophe + s and apostrophe without the s are used; the latter is more popular.

Example: Hastings’ car or Dallas’ roads.

Plurals: When you are visiting the Kapoor family – the Kapoors – you are Kapoors’ guest. The same applies to names that have an ‘s’ to begin with; the Jones family becomes the Joneses; the ‘es’ is added to make them plural.

Note: Never use an apostrophe + s to make a name plural. If you say you are Kapoor’s guest, you’ll be the guest of an individual called Kapoor, not of the whole Kapoor family.

Plural Nouns

Plurals that end with s or es: To show plural possession just an apostrophe is added after the s or es.

Example: a girls’ night out or the actresses’ role.

Plurals of irregular nouns: The English language also has words like child, man or woman that turn to children, men and women respectively in their plural forms. Such words then follow suit with the singular nouns.

Example: Happy women’s day or children’s books.

Joint Possession

When you want to show possession for more than one noun the following rules may apply:

  • When one thing belongs to more than one person, only the final name uses the apostrophe.

     Example: Tom, Nick and Tina’s parents are nice. (refers to one set of parents to all three kids)

  • When multiple things belong to multiple people, every name of the person uses an apostrophe.

      Example: Tom’s, Nick’s and Tina’s parents are also coming to the party. (refers to three sets of parents of three different individuals)

A man’s grammar, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.

~ Edgar Allan Poe

Confusion with Apostrophe:

Each of the following sentences changes in meaning with the placement of the apostrophe:

  • My brother’s friend’s investments (the investments belonging to a friend of my brother)
  • My brother’s friends’ investments (the investments belonging to several friends of my brother)
  • My brothers’ friend’s investments (the investments belonging to a friend of several of my brothers)
  • My brothers’ friends’ investments (the investments belonging to several friends of several of my brothers)

Avoid writing ambiguous phrases like her and Sean’s house pictures. Whether it means a picture of her and a picture of Sean’s house or a picture of a house co-owned by her and Sean is not clear and hence needs rephrasing.

It’s hard to take someone seriously when they leave you a note saying, ‘Your ugly.’ My ugly what? The idiot didn’t even know the difference between your and you’re.

~ Cara Lynn Shultz

Apostrophe for Contraction:

Contracted words use an apostrophe:

Example: are not – aren’t, she is – she’s, let us – let’s

It is also used for the omission of letters—usually in slang.

Example: ‘twas a rainy day (contracts it was); Where you goin’? (omits the g in going)

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.

~ Lynne Truss

Apostrophe to Make Plurals:

In some exceptions, a regular noun or proper noun is made plural with an apostrophe:

Example: Here is a list of do’s and don’ts.

The use of apostrophe here differs with style guides some prefer omitting the apostrophe and keeping the s – dos and don’ts where some write the phrase with an extra apostrophe – do’s and don’t’s.

Another instance is when you make plurals from single letters.

Example: I scored straight A’s in all subjects.

Written without the apostrophe it would read as As and portray incorrect meaning.


Which cases do you find most confusing when it comes to this punctuation mark? Let us know in the comments below!