Apostrophes have two functions:
- to indicate ownership (John's pen)
- to indicate where some letters have been missed out, and these are called contractions (They're driving down tomorrow.)
Look at these examples and decide why the apostrophe is there:
- It's very hot today.
- I'm exhausted, and ready for bed.
- The government's view has been clearly stated many times.
- Don't ask me because I just can't decide!
- That woman's got a parrot on her shoulder!
- It's very important to be independent and have a life of one's own.
Apostrophes in contractions
In spoken and informal English it is common for some words to be combined and shortened; it sounds more natural and fluid.
I can't see you tonight. = I cannot see you tonight.
Don't do that. It'll break. = Do not do that. It will break.
Some contractions (two words combined and shortened) are irregular:
- won't = will not
- shan't = shall not
The words is and has can both be abbreviated to 's.
- He's been staying with his cousin.
- He's very hard working and self-motivated.
- She's sold her car and moved to Glasgow.
- She's over there beside the drinks machine.
In order to avoid any confusion, we sometimes add got to make the meaning clearer:
- She's a boat moored down on the coast, near Harwich.
- She's got a boat moored down on the coast, near Harwich.
Apostrophes for ownership
If something belongs to a singular noun, we add ['s] - an apostrophe and a letter [s] at the end.
- the boy's computer = the computer belonging to (or being used by) the boy;
- the speaker's idea = the idea of the speaker;
- the carpenter's tools = the tools of the carpenter.
If something belongs to a plural noun that already ends with an [s], the apostrophe to show ownership or posession comes after that [s] but no additional [s] is normally necessary.
- the boys' computers = the computers belonging to (or used by) the boys;
- the speakers' ideas = the ideas of the speakers;
- the carpenters' tools = the tools of the carpenters.
You will sometimes see this topic explained in terms of whether the apostrophe comes before or after the [s] but this is misleading. For possession, the basic form is to add ['s] at the end BUT if the word already ends with an [s] we usually do not add the extra [s].
Some words are not regular in their plural form. If the plural form does not end in [s], we show possession by adding ['s] to the end.
- child - the child's toys --- children - the children's toys
- man - the man's clothes --- men - the men's clothes
- woman - the woman's hat --- women - the women's hats
In practice, we also avoid phrases that sound odd, such as the mice's cheese, by reordering the words to, for example, the cheese of the mice.
Some nouns have identical singular and plural forms:
- sheep --- sheep
- deer --- deer
- fish --- fish
- salmon --- salmon (and most other types of fish)
The context of the word is the only way of knowing whether the noun is singular or plural.
- the sheep's coat = the coat of the sheep (probably singular!)
- the sheep's coats = the coats of the sheep (probably plural!)
- the deer's food
- the fish's rapid movements
Once again, some of the phrases sound odd, so we reorder the words: the food of the deer or the rapid movement of the fish.
Some singular noun words end in [s] and in these cases, the normal rule of an apostrophe followed by an [s] still applies.
- the scissors's handle
- the dress's sequins
- the princess's husband
- the house's roof
Again, in practice, we often reorder the words to avoid an awkward sounding phrase: the handle of the scissors or its handle; the roof of the house.
Some names (proper nouns) end with an [s] and this can be confusing. In such cases, the apostrophe can be placed either after the final [s] (Jones' farm) or another [s] can be added and an apostrophe can be placed in front of it. (Jones's farm). Opinions differ but you should regard both forms as correct. There is an added complication if the proper noun is referring to a plural entity:
the Smiths' house = the house of the Smiths / the house of Smith family.
the Jones' house = the house of the Joneses / the house of Jones family.
The apostrophe always comes before the -s when we use compound words:
- my brother-in-law's car --- my brothers-in-law's cars
- her sister-in-law's husband --- her sisters-in-law's husbands
It's and its
These are often confused.
- it's = it is --- It's my book.
- its = belonging to it --- Have you seen my book? Its cover is red.
When in doubt, ask yourself whether the full form it is will fit in the sentence. If not, use its.
- It's wonderful to be back in the big city!
- It's an old farm set deep in the country.
- Its colour changes with the seasons of the year.
- I saw its eyes flash in the darkness, and then it was gone.
These are often confused so be careful!
Rewrite this passage, placing all of the apostrophes correctly.
The future looked bleak after years of poor management and low export sales. However, the governments view was that the only way forward was up! "We shan't make any progress by whining," exclaimed the Chancellor of the Exchequer. "We must work hard and adopt modern solutions to todays problems. His views were echoed by many of the members of parliament. The opposition disagreed. "Its disgraceful!" cried the opposition leader. "The chancellors programme is going to bring ruin to this country!" The Prime Ministers reply was short and to the point. "Thats rubbish!" he said. In fact, he was less concerned with the oppositions views than he was with views closer to home. He was more concerned about his wifes attitude, because he knew she could cause him a lot of touble. She made her views quite clear. "The peoples future depends upon good housekeeping! The cabinets plans must reflect the needs of ordinary people. Without that, your partys doomed!"