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Up From Down Under March 2008

The Valiant Apostrophe



Yes, it’s a fighter! The apostrophe wages a continual battle against the forces of modernism wishing to banish it from the pages of English literature. Did you know it has a website dedicated to its protection?*



When should we use apostrophes?


Basically, there are two main uses for apostrophes.


1. To indicate contractions. These are words formed by combining two other words which lose some letters in the process.


Common examples are:


  • don’t – formed by combining do and not.
  • isn’t – formed by combining is and not.
  • shouldn’t – formed by combining should and not.
  • can’t – formed by combining can and not.


We do that a lot with not, don’t we?


Other examples:


  • I’ve – formed by combining I and have.
  • they’ve – formed by combining they and have.
  • let’s – formed by combining let and us.
  • who’s – formed by combining who and is.
  • he’d – formed by combining he and had.


Oh, yes, and our old friend or nemesis, as the case may be:


  • it’s – formed by combining it and is.


Doesn’t that last one cause more problems than any other you know of?  Remember, before you use it’s, think, ‘Do I mean, it is?’ If so, write it’s.


2.  To indicate possession. It’s here the apostrophe tends to meet most of its abuse or neglect.


Common examples are:


  • John’s coat – John has a coat.
  • Mary’s jacket – Mary has a jacket.


It doesn’t necessarily mean they own the garments, but they do possess them. As they say, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Don’t try telling that to the police if you’re accused of stealing something - they’re likely to remind you about the remaining tenth.


Other examples:


  • The dog’s collar. – one dog is wearing a collar or its owner has one for it to wear.
  • The cat’s paw – relates to one paw of one particular cat.
  • The neighbour’s yard – belonging to the person next door.
  • The man’s car – one man has a car.
  • The lady’s gown – one lady has a gown.


Now, let’s try plural possessives:


  • The dogs’ collars – two or more dogs have collars.
  • The cats’ paws – relates to some paws of some cats.
  • The men’s car – two or more men use the same car. (Joint ownership or possession.)
  • The ladies’ gowns – two or more ladies, etc.


Okay you get the picture, I’m sure. Now consider this:


  • The neighbours’ yard – two neighbours own the same yard. (Perhaps it’s a married couple.)


Other plural possessives:


  • The children’s books.
  • Two sheep’s legs.
  • The cows’ spots.
  • The authors’ words.
  • The passes’ trails - mountain passes with many trails.


Odd and tricky ones:


  • James’s bag – James has a bag. (We add the extra ‘s’ because of the sound – phonetically, it sounds like Jameses.)
  • The Joneses’ car -  one car belonging to the Jones family.
  • Mother-in-law’s temper – she has a temper.
  • John and Betty’s car – joint possession or ownership.



Where don’t we use apostrophes?


Answer = lots of places, but particularly not with:


Possessive Pronouns


These are words that indicate possession but don’t take an apostrophe. Why? Simple, they’re possessive by nature.


Some examples:


  • his – something belongs to a male
  • hers – something belongs to a female
  • theirs – something belongs to more than one person. (However, this word is becoming acceptable in the singular tense to avoid being sexist.)


And, of course:


  • its – something belongs to an it. (Note this one for future reference. Its is possessive; it’s is a contraction of ‘it is’. Okay?)


Extra added attraction:


  • whose – like when we ask, “Whose is this?” (Note, it’s not spelled who’s, which, of course, is a contraction for ‘who is’.)



I believe that’s enough. We could get more complicated, but advanced learners and writers can do their own research. Try these sites:   (*Apostrophe Protection Society)     (Basic stuff)    (Very comprehensive.)   (Refers to acronyms and apostrophes.)



Les Stephenson 2005


Reprint from October, 2005, issue of The Muse Marquee.