Do you wake up at night, tossing and turning, wondering when to use its and when to use it’s?
Hmmm … sounds as if you need your very own copy of the Apostrophe FAQ!
When to Use the Apostrophe
It only has TWO functions to perform and they’re both straightforward, but still it gets pushed in where it doesn’t belong or left out of where it wants to be.
Let’s take a moment to sort this out once and for all …
1. Using the Apostrophe to show OMISSION
- What’s a nice kid like me, doing in a place like this?
We started with two words, what and is, but because this is informal writing, we want to express it informally, so we omit a letter from the word is. Because we’re well brought up little Vegemites (remember?), we let people know what we’ve done.
I could’ve danced all night … (could have, not could ‘of’)
It’s time for breakfast (It is time …)
It’s been raining all day. (It has been raining …)
So, in future whenever you see an apostrophe, make a conscious effort to work out what the original word was before the letter was omitted. Sometimes, as in the case of could’ve and would’ve, more than one letter has been omitted.
This will establish good habits and alert you to the role of the apostrophe.
2. Using the apostrophe to show POSSESSION
We went to Marmaduke’s restaurant for dinner. (Marmaduke owns the restaurant; it is the restaurant of Marmaduke.)
Notice how the apostrophe comes at the end of the noun (Marmaduke) and is accompanied by the letter ‘s’ – a bit like a chaperone.
- We knew who to blame for the missing pie; there was cream all over the dog’s whiskers!
We’re only referring to one dog and it owns the whiskers (and the pie and a very satisfied smile, no doubt).
An area that causes trouble, is with words that end in ‘s’ or ‘z’
- e.g. That’s Cornelius’s book. This sounds a bit clumsy, doesn’t it – all those ‘ssss’?
In this case, it’s quite acceptable to just put in the apostrophe after the ‘s’ (even though it’s a singular noun).
- e.g. Cornelius’ book.
So the rule here is, if it sounds awkward or clumsy, use only the final ‘s’ in the name and then add the apostrophe; if you
can live with the sound of all the ‘s’, by all means, add the apostrophe ‘s’.
Confusion arises when the apostrophe is used with a plural noun.
- At the zoo, the children were most interested in seeing the lions’ den.
More than one lion owns the den, so we add the apostrophe after the ‘s’ (this is the den of the lions).
So, the general rule is:
- if there’s one owner – add an apostrophe and then ‘s’
- if there are two or more owners – add ‘s’ then an apostrophe.
However, (and of course you’re not surprised to hear this, are you?), there are exceptions to this rule.
For words which form their plural by changing internal letters (instead of adding ‘s’), the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’.
- It was the children’s turn to wash up.
Children is already a plural word, so we don’t need to make it doubly plural by adding ‘s’ apostrophe; however, we do need to indicate the idea of ownership, so we use apostrophe ‘s’.
Some other words which follow this rule are: men, women, people.
When you have ‘double possession’ – when two or more people (or subjects) own one item and both (or all) of their names are mentioned, the apostrophe is applied only to the second (or last) name.
- We had coffee at Ermintrude and Marmaduke’s mansion.
The apostrophe is also used with many expressions of time (to show that the time period owns the other noun):
- an hour’s time; a year’s holiday
BUT notice that we do not use the apostrophe with possessive pronouns (remember, these are the little guys who step in and lend a paw to nouns).
- After dinner at Marmaduke’s restaurant, we went back to his place for coffee.
- The bird’s feathers were ruffled. (The bird owns the feathers.)
- The bird ruffled its feathers. (The bird owns the feathers, but the pronoun its is being used instead of the noun, so there is NO apostrophe.
You’ll see it’s and its used incorrectly nearly every single day and in places where it should never happen. An easy way to make sure you never confuse the two is to ask yourself (do this quietly, you don’t want to alarm those around you), if the words it is can be substituted in the sentence- if the answer is yes, then whack in the old apostrophe.
If the answer is no, then sit on your hands so you won’t be tempted.
- The bird ruffled its (it is?) feathers. (NO)
- It’s (it is?) a lovely day. (YES)
And here’s how to avoid … Death by Apostrophe!