The Correct Use of the Apostrophe in the English Language
The rules concerning the use of apostrophes in modern written English are very simple:
1. To denote missing letters – omission or contractions
The apostrophe is used to show that one or more letters have been omitted from the word, or that multiple words have been contracted:
I can’t instead of I cannot
I don’t instead of I do not
it’s instead of it is or it has
There are a few examples that have more than one separate omission:
Fo’c’s’le – contracted from the nautical term “forecastle”
There are also some words where the omission is at the beginning of the word:
’phone – contracted form of “telephone”, though modern usage now omits the apostrophe
2. To denote possession or association
For singular nouns, the standard approach is to add an apostrophe and "s":
the dog’s bone
the company’s logo
the boy's bike
If there are two or more dogs, companies or boys in our examples, the apostrophe comes after the 's':
the dogs’ bones
the companies’ logos
the boys' bikes
But be careful about possessives of plural nouns that don't end in "s".
These possessives are formed with an apostrophe and "s" - do not make them incorrect by adding "s" then the apostrophe:
the children's bicycles (not the childrens' bicycles)
the men's clothing department
Acronyms and initialisms follow the same rule:
NATO’s defence policy
The TV’s picture quality
Possessives of people's names
Most names follow these same rules. Names that don't end in an "s" add an apostrophe and "s":
When the name ends in an "s", you either add an apostrophe and "s" or just an apostrophe. The choice depends on the style guide that you're following and, to some extent, the country in which you live. Thus:
James's pen or James' pen
Mr Jones's van or Mr Jones' van
Jesus's disciples or Jesus' disciples
Keats's poems or Keats' poems
Some guides say that we only add an apostrophe and "s" if the possessive form is pronounced with an extra "s" sound.
Generally, most guides prefer the apostrophe-s style.
3. In temporal (time) expressions
These denote periods of time, either singular or plural:
One week’s notice
Two weeks’ holiday
4. Brand names and apostrophes
The use, or lack of use, of apostrophes in brand names that originated as the founder’s name is a subject that generates a lot of discussion. It can be argued that if the name is derived from the founder's surname then they should keep the possessive apostrophe - so "Harrod’s" and "Sainsbury’s". But Harrods dropped their apostrophe in about 1920, whereas Sainsbury’s have retained theirs. But where the origins of the name have become of less importance over time, and where the business has chosen to omit the apostrophe from their branding, it can also be argued that it is an entirely valid and acceptable business decision. "Harrod’s" is now known as "Harrods", not as the store originally founded by Mr Harrod, and that’s their prerogative.
Interestingly, what is now known as "Sainsbury’s" was originally known as "J Sainsbury", but they decided to drop the "J" and add a possessive apostrophe and “s”. Again, it was their prerogative to decide how their business brand should be presented.
It’s definitely a topic that generates strong feelings - in 2012, Waterstone’s (the book store) announced that they were dropping the apostrophe from their name. There was a good deal of outrage from some directions, but they went ahead, and the business is now correctly known as "Waterstones".
5. Special mention for “its” and “your”
This use, and misuse, of “its” and “it’s” can cause particular excitement amongst apostrophe pedants! The distinction is simple:
It’s – is a contraction of “it is” or “it has”, and uses an apostrophe to show that contraction:
It’s important to get this right
Its – is a possessive personal pronoun (like “our”, “his”, etc) indicating ownership, or possession, or association of something, and does not take an apostrophe:
The dog ate its bone and we ate our dinner
If you’re unsure whether you need “it’s” with an apostrophe, just expand out the contraction to “it is” or “it has”, and see if it makes sense:
“The dog ate it is bone” - doesn’t make sense, and is incorrect.
Note that there is never a valid use for having the apostrophe after the “its” – thus its’ is always wrong.
The distinction between “you’re” and “your” is very similar:
You’re – is a contraction for “you are”, and therefore takes an apostrophe:
You’re coming over to my house
Your – is possessive (like "my" or "his"), and doesn’t take an apostrophe:
this is your pen
Again, if it doubt, expand out the contracted form to “you are” and see if it then makes sense:
You are coming over to my house – makes sense
This is you are pen – doesn’t make sense, and is wrong.
6. Apostrophes are NEVER used to denote plurals!
It's a simple rule - do not make a plural by using an apostrophe and "s"!
Banana’s for sale which of course should read Bananas for sale
Menu’s printed to order which should read Menus printed to order
MOT’s at this garage which should read MOTs at this garage
1000’s of bargains here! which should read 1000s of bargains here!
New CD’s just in! which should read New CDs just in!
Plurals of single lowercase letters are possibly an acceptable exception to the rule for the purpose of clarity and to avoid ambiguous interpretation – thus “minding your p’s and q’s”. For plurals of single uppercase letters, there is less scope for ambiguity or confusion, so “He achieved 3 As and 4 Bs” is clear enough without any apostrophes.
Finally, when expressing a decade, an apostrophe is used to denote omission, but not a plural - e.g. the ’60s, compared with
the 1960s (not the 1960’s).
7. Attributive nouns and apostrophes
In English grammar, an attributive noun is a noun that modifies another noun and functions as an adjective. Most examples of this involve a singular attributive noun - for example, "a government official", "a bottle opener", "business ethics".
However, when the first noun in a compound pair is plural, it can become difficult to decide whether the first noun is acting as a noun that ought to be showing possession, or as an attributive noun acting as an adjective.
Consider the case of the noun pair "farmers market ". The use of an apostrophe in a phrase such as this can be a topic of debate, as it depends on how the phrase is intended to be used and understood. In this specific case, the term is generally used as a noun to refer to a type of market where farmers sell their products directly to consumers. In this context, the phrase does not show possession and therefore does not require an apostrophe.
However, if the phrase is being used in a more possessive sense, such as "the farmers’ market", then an apostrophe would be necessary to indicate possession. In this case, the apostrophe would show that the market belongs to the farmers, rather than just being a market for them to sell their products. If it was only one farmer, then it would be "a farmer’s market".
Ultimately, whether an apostrophe is needed in a word pair like "farmers market" depends on the context and intended meaning of the phrase. In most cases, however, the phrase is used as in a descriptive way and does not require an apostrophe.
It is always important to consider the context and intended meaning when using apostrophes, as they can greatly affect the meaning of a phrase. Remember also that different style guides will differ on this, so it may be necessary to refer to any preferred style guide when unsure about the use of apostrophes with compound nouns.
8. Double Genitive - is it "a friend of Bob" or "a friend of Bob’s"?
At first glance, the use of "of" and a possessive apostrophe may look wrong. But the "double genitive" (or double possessive) has been in use in English since the 14th century. It’s a syntactic construction in English in which possession is marked both by the preposition "of" and a noun or pronoun in the possessive case - as in "A friend of Bob’s is a friend of mine".
In most usage cases, both options are ok and are in established usage and, critically, both are entirely clear in meaning. Note that in the case of "a friend of mine", "mine" is a possessive pronoun, and substituting it with a regular pronoun doesn’t read well - "a friend of me" is not good English.
The use of the double genitive can sometimes clarify the precise meaning of a phrase - for example, "a photograph of Bob’s" implies that the photograph belongs to Bob, whereas "a photograph of Bob" is a photograph where Bob is the subject rather than merely the owner.
Some style guides prefer to avoid the use of the double genitive altogether by re-wording what is being said - e.g. "one of Bob’s friends". But generally, either form can be used - if it sounds right, it probably is.