Five simple rules for perfect apostrophes

Of all the punctuation marks, apostrophes seem to cause the most confusion. Which is funny, because they only have two uses — to stand for missing letters and to show when something belongs to something else. The following five rules should tell you all you need to know to get your apostrophes right every time.

1. Use apostrophes to stand for missing letters

It’s been a great cake-eating contest. (it has)
It’s the best I’ve ever been to. (it is; I have)
But please don’t make me eat more. (do not)

Chocolate cake with raspberries.

2. Use apostrophes to show what belongs to what

When something belongs to a single person or thing:

my friend’s new cake stand (the cake stand of my friend)
her aunt’s chocolate gateau recipe (the recipe of her aunt)

When something belongs to more than one person or thing:

my friends’ applause (the applause of all my friends)
the aunties’ best cake forks (the cake forks of various aunties)

Cake forks.

Tip: If you’re not sure where the apostrophe should go, say the phrase the long way round, using ‘of’. Put the apostrophe where you stop speaking.

the huge appetite of my opponent (put apostrophe here)
my opponent’s huge appetite

the cream fillings of the cakes (put apostrophe here)
the cakes’ cream fillings

the wistful looks of the hungry children (put apostrophe here)
the hungry children’s wistful looks

Tip: For personal names that already end in ‘s’, you can choose to add an extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe if it sounds right when you say it out loud.

Curtis’s cake-eating trophy (correct)
Curtis’ cake-eating trophy (also correct)

3. Don’t use apostrophes when you mean ‘more than one’

The girls ate more than the boys.
The 1990s were my best cake-eating days.
Kate got two As and four Bs at patisserie school.
I ate three muffins and nine cookies.

Cookies.

But do use an apostrophe if the reader could get confused (or rewrite the sentence).

Obey the do’s and don’ts of the contest. (or, Obey the rules of the contest.)

4. Take special care with it’s and its

Only use an apostrophe if you mean ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

It’s been a day of sugar and sore tummies. (it has)
It’s all over now, thankfully. (it is)

5. Use a map to check apostrophes in place and street names

Many place names don’t use apostrophes. In some cases, the apostrophe disappears over time. Use a current map or encyclopedia to check.

Baker’s Yard
Chefs Lane
Cooks Road

 Cooks Road.

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7 responses to “Five simple rules for perfect apostrophes”

  1. Arthur’s Pass and Hawke’s Bay (the region) are the only NZ place names that still have the apostrophe, I believe.

  2. Gary Burns says:

    excellent explanation

  3. Ebenezer says:

    Thanks for sharing the basic rules

  4. kevin says:

    If only you’d been around in Year 7…….

  5. Agnes Han says:

    Thanks, from time to time I am bound to find it confusing – particularly for subject ending with “s”

  6. eleanormeecham says:

    Thanks Stuart. That’s fascinating. It’s so interesting to watch how language changes over time, and the decisions people (and governments) make to move with the times.

  7. Stuart Camp says:

    What a lovely simple set of rules. Thank you.
    A point of note in relation to street names. In New Zealand, the Government passed a ruling a number of years ago that stree names no longer have apostrophes in them, irrespective of how the name originated. Makes for simplicity.

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