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Marketing / Business writing

Punctuation rules: Correct use of apostrophes

With so many different punctuation rules that need to be followed when writing the English language, it can sometimes get confusing. This article outlines the correct use of apostrophes.

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Language researcher David Graddol predicts that in 2010 there will be 2 billion people on the planet speaking English, of whom only 350 million will be native speakers. So how the English language develops over the next 100 years may largely depend on what non-native speakers do with the language.

I wonder if non-native speakers will change the punctuation rules and abolish the apostrophe as it’s often not essential for meaning. Although I’ve used an apostrophe in that last sentence, you would have understood the sentence without it.

However, the apostrophe hasn’t vanished yet so let’s outline the correct use of apostrophes. We use the apostrophe to:

  • indicate possession (dog’s bone)
  • replace letters in contracted words (can’t)
  • help avoid ambiguity (dot the i’s)

The apostrophe has nothing to do with plurals. This article looks at the possessive aspect of apostrophes and common mistakes people make.

"One troublesome area is what to do with words ending with ‘s’, for example, Frances. Do you say Frances’ book or Frances’s book?"

Possession

The apostrophe indicates ‘belonging to’ or ‘of’, for example, the boy’s game means ‘the game belonging to the boy’.

In plurals, the apostrophe comes after the plural form of the word, which may not necessarily be an ‘s’, for example, heroes’ rewards (rewards of the heroes), children’s toys (toys belonging to the children).

One troublesome area is what to do with words ending with ‘s’, for example, Frances. Do you say Frances’ book or Frances’s book? There are several conflicting punctuation rules around this, the most amusing being that ancient and biblical people (Moses, Jesus, Achilles) don’t need the extra ‘s’, but mere mortals such as Frances do. Therefore you have Moses’ robe and Frances’s robe. How bizarre is that?

The Australian government style manual comes down in favour of the extra ‘s’, but most people I ask don’t use it. I suggest you decide for yourself – just be consistent.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

Adjectival possession

There is a second category of possession, which I called adjectival possession, and it means ‘for’ rather than ‘belonging to’ or ‘of’. For example, girls’ school (school for girls), widows’ pension (pension for widows).

This apostrophe is often dropped these days, for example, girls school and widows pension.

As you can imagine, this causes some debate and in NSW, the RTA obviously couldn’t decide where to put the apostrophe in drivers licence. Is it your driver’s licence (belonging to you)? Or a drivers licence/drivers’ licence (licence for driving). If it’s a licence for driving, should it be with or without an apostrophe? The RTA’s solution: driver licence.

Common problems

Confusing its and it’s

Its only has an apostrophe when it is short for it is. Its is a possessive pronoun. Other possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his, hers, theirs and they never take an apostrophe. (It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.)

  • Using apostrophes in plurals

Apostrophes in plurals are common, but wrong (Unique Santa Photo’s).

  • Using apostrophes in plural abbreviations and dates

Plural abbreviations and dates, such as CDs, 1990s, FAQs, do not need an apostrophe unless they are possessive (1990s’ fashion).

Remember, the apostrophe primarily indicates possession and has nothing to do with plurals.

Mary Morel

, The M Factor, works with individuals and organisations to improve their writing (grammar, reports, board papers etc.)

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