Sunday, January 16, 2011

Apostrophes: a gentle introduction

Apostrophes: a gentle introduction

Apostrophes are a common source of confusion for many writers. They needn't be, though, and this easy-to-follow article will help you to use them properly.

Let's start with a very simple explanation of what a noun is. (Don't worry, this will be the only jargon in the entire article. I promise.)

A NOUN is a word that stands for a person or thing. Examples include "dog", "Tim", "love", "house" and "Ireland".

SINGULAR NOUNS stand for a single person or thing; for example, "chair". PLURAL NOUNS stand for several people or things; for example, "chairs".


The most common use of an apostrophe is to indicate possession by a person or thing of some other person or thing. For example:

"John's book" or "Europe's history".

Using an apostrophe to indicate possession is really quite straight forward, yet it's a frequent source of confusion. There are two separate cases to consider: singular nouns and plural nouns.


When a noun is singular (i.e. it stands for a single person or thing) we show possession by adding apostrophe–s. For example:

    the girl's book

    Japan's recovering economy

    the princess's gown

    Mauritius's beaches

    the cat's whiskers

Summary: Singular nouns are made possessive by adding apostrophe–s.


When a noun is plural (i.e. it stands for a several people or things) we show shared possession by adding an apostrophe after the "s". For example:

    the CEOs' perks        (the perks shared by two or more CEOs)

    the players' pride     (the pride shared by two or more players)

    the programmers' books (the books shared by two or more programmers)

    the boys' games        (the games belonging to two or more boys)

Summary: Plural nouns are made possessive by adding an apostrophe after the "s".


As with many rules, there is an exception. This one concerns nouns that form their plural without adding an s. For example:

woman/women, person/people, sheep/sheep and child/children.

Words like this take apostrophe–s in both their forms. For example:

    the woman's idea        (the idea belonging to one woman)

    the women's idea        (the idea belonging to two or more women)

    the child's gift        (the gift belonging to one child)

    the children's gift     (the gift belonging to two or more children)

Summary: Nouns that become plural without using an "s" (e.g. woman/women) are made possessive by adding apostrophe–s to both forms.

Another use of the apostrophe is to indicate missing letters in contractions such as "isn't", "doesn't" and "can't". For example:

    Full form    Shortened form
            can not        can't
            do not         don't
            does not       doesn't
            I will         I'll
            is not         isn't
            it is          it's
            let us         let's
            there is       there's
            you are        you're

You'll notice that the apostrophe appears in place of the omitted letter or letters. For example, in contracting "is not" to "isn't" the apostrophe replaces the missing "o".

That's all there is to it. Practise those simple rules, and you'll be the local expert on apostrophes.

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his web site, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.

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