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

  • Jones's bakery

This applies to all nouns, so the correct versions are Jesus's disciples, Keats's poems and so on.

However, if there are two or more dogs, companies or Joneses in our example, the apostrophe comes after the 's':

  • the dogs' bones

  • the companies' logos

  • Joneses' bakeries

Acronyms and initialisms follow the same rule:

  • The TV’s picture quality

  • NATO’s defence policy

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 it was dropping the apostrophe from their name. There was a good deal level 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 is “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)

The Examples pages shows a selection of real-life apostrophe abuse examples.

The Useful Links page has links to various published articles and books that include more guidance on the correct use of apostrophes and other punctuation.