The apostrophe is probably the most misused and misunderstood of all punctuation marks. Although there are those who wish to remove the apostrophe from the English language, this would simply result in rampant confusion and ambiguity.  

Consider this:

She had to wash all the boys jerseys.

But where do we put the apostrophe?

Obviously we have two interpretations available without an apostrophe: she had to wash all of one boy’s jerseys, or she had to wash the jerseys of many boys. So, the proper use of the apostrophe is essential to correct English.

Here are the basic rules for using the apostrophe:

  1. Indicating the possessive form of words
    1. For any singular or plural nouns that do not end with the letter s, add ’s:
      • The girl’s dress
      • The ship’s captain
      • The boss’s wife
      • The children’s playground
      • The women’s locker room
      • In one week’s time [week here is singular].
        Note: in certain phrases, the plural noun is descriptive rather than possessive – it describes the association with the word that follows and does not need an apostrophe:
        • She went to a girls grammar school.
        • He had a valid drivers licence. [But: the policeman demanded to see the driver’s licence.]
        • She kept her travellers cheques in her purse.
        For individual possession, show the apostrophe on each noun; where group possession is meant, only use it on the last:
        • Ben’s and Mary’s bicycles were parked outside.
        • Ben and Mary’s mother was inside with them.
    2. Where a plural noun already ends with an s, simply add the apostrophe:
      • The girls’ netball team
      • The babies’ cribs
      • In two weeks’ time [weeks here is plural, though this is descriptive rather than possessive, so it is acceptable to leave out the apostrophe ].
    3. Possessive personal names ending with an s are less clear:
      • Keats’s poetry; Keats’ poetry [take your pick]
      • Bridget Jones’s Diary [but Davy Jones’ Locker]
      • Alexander Dumas’s novel [if foreign names end with a silent s, add ’s]
      • Guy Fawkes’ Day.
    4. Names from the ancient world never take the added s:
      • Archimedes’ screw
      • Achilles’ heel
      • Moses’ Ten Commandments
      • Jesus’ disciples.
        Note: the names of some institutions, families, titles and companies use – or don’t use – the apostrophe in particular ways. Whether grammatically right or wrong, it is the duty of editors to defer to their wishes:
        • St Thomas’ Hospital; St James’ Park.
        • Earls Court; Gerrards Cross.
        • Lloyd’s of London; Barclays Bank.
        • Queen’s College, Oxford; Queens’ College, Cambridge.
        • Howards End (by E.M. Forster).
      Note: possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes: theirs, his, hers, ours, yours; and most importantly, its!
  2. Indicating the omission of figures in dates:
    • The summer of ’69
    • The music of the ’80s [note: there is no apostrophe before the ‘s’ as it is not possessive].
    • The ’60’s baby boomers [but it is here!].
  3. To indicate the omission of letters in words, contractions or non-standard English:
    • I won’t be able to attend, I’m afraid.
    • It’s too late for a swim. [Note: it’s = it is.]
    • Ne’er-do-well. [Means: never likely to succeed.]
    • ’Twas heav’n sent, tho’, ’pon my word ... [As used in poetry: It was heaven sent, though, upon my word ...]
    • Get ye to the fo’c’s’le and report to the bo’sun for the cat-o’-nine-tails! [If’n ye be a pirate!]
    • Common Irish names like O’Neill, O’Malley and O’Casey.
    Note: it is no longer necessary to use the apostrophe on commonly abbreviated words – phone (not ’phone); bus (not ’bus); flu for influenza; cello for violoncello; fridge for refrigerator. Here we see the evolution of English in progress.
  4. Indicating the plural form of single letters and words that usually do not have a plural version:
    • Mind your p’s and q’s. [Note the use of italics].
    • There are more e’s used in English words than any other letter.
    • Here are the do’s and don’t’s of punctuation. [Clumsy looking: but this is correct, despite many good grammar sources getting it wrong!].
    • But’s and and’s are commonly used conjunctions. [Italics here again because we are using a word as a word].

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