Demystifying the Apostrophe – how and when to use an apostrophe

February 25th, 2020 by Jane Turner

I’ve noticed through my working life that a good percentage of people have trouble with apostrophes – when and how to use them.  I agree they can be confusing, so here I aim to provide a list of the main things to remember.

Firstly, remember that apostrophes are mainly used to indicate ownership/possession or contractions.

If you’re not a grammarian, check my handy table at the end of the post for definitions. I’ve also included some recommended reading, should you be interested in increasing your grammatical knowledge further.


a shop sign showing the greengrocers apostrophe

  1. NEVER, EVER use an apostrophe to make a plural.

An apostrophe should not be used to indicate more than one banana, or more than one book.  As you can often find apostrophes used this way at the grocer, this has come to be known as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’.

Don’t do it. You’ll look silly and many, many people will comment you’ve got it wrong. Trust me.

If you persist, there’s an actual Society that will embarrass you online.


  1. This includes pluralising abbreviations – e.g CDs, IDs, ATMs.

It’s easiest just to refer to point one. Don’t do it.


  1. Except for single letters: pluralising a letter

Well, every rule has an exception!

In British English, when ‘minding your p’s and q’s’, or ‘dotting i’s and crossing t’s’, you should use an apostrophe.

Just think how hard it will be for readers if you don’t.  (“Mum, I know ps, but what’s a qs?”)


  1. It’s or its?

This one could have a post all on it’s own! In a nutshell, are you trying to say ‘it is’ / ‘it has’? Or are you trying to indicate ownership of a thing?

Its means belonging to it.

It’s means it has.


  1. Noun possessives – the pen’s colour, the boss’s office, the princess’s tiara

Most nouns can have possessions just by adding ‘s, e.g. the dog’s growl, the oak’s lushness.

One of the ways language is so great is that it’s fluid. You might find that what you learnt in your youth is no longer common use.  For example, I was taught to always leave an open apostrophe if the noun ends in an s, e.g. the boss’ office.  This might have been the way of it 30 years ago, but in 2020 we add an ‘s, as in the title of this point.


  1. Proper noun possessives – the Blairs’, the Adamses’, the Kennedys’

This is a two step process. First, create the plural:

  • Tony and Cherie are the Blairs
  • Charles and Kate are the Dickenses
  • John F. and Jackie are the Kennedys

The main things to remember when pluralising names; if the name ends in an s, then add es to make a collective plural. If the name ends in any other letter, a single s will pluralise nicely. Don’t try and pluralise names ending in y with the standard ies, as you would for welly/wellies, kitty/kitties.

After the plural, add the possessive apostrophe:

  • The Blairs’ singing troupe
  • The Kennedys’ bouncing baby
  • The Dickenses’ enormous number of children (they had 10!!)


  1. Ownership when there are two

If Steve and Jessica both had pencils and were working together, it would be: Steve and Jessica’s pencils

If Steve and Jessica were both there but had their own pencils, it would be: Steven’s and Jessica’s pencils



There are more (there are always more) guidelines for apostrophe use – indeed, we could go on for days. But these are those I’ve found to be the most common, hence the most useful for you.

If you can master these, you won’t be picked on for your apostrophe use ever again!


Do leave a comment below if you’ve found this helpful.


If you’d like help with your text, do check out my Editorial Services page, and get in touch for a chat!


Abbreviation Shortened versions of words or terms, e.g. approx. = approximately, Mr. = mister, min. = minimum, dept = department
Acronym Letters representing words, e.g. NASA or CIA. Some can be said how they are (NASA) and some are spelled (CIA).
Contraction A shortened version of the written or spoken forms of a word, syllable, or word group, created by omission of internal letters and sounds. The apostrophe is placed where the missing letters were. e.g. shouldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t’ve
Noun A thing. This thing can be doing something, or just sitting there existing. Or (to make it a little more confusing) it can be an idea, e.g. peace, war, love
Plural Indicates more than one, e.g. fishes, tomatoes, books
Possessive Indicates ownership e.g. Jane’s book, the dog’s growl.
Pronoun Replaces a noun in a sentence, assigning people or things as the subject. e.g. it, I, me, mine, myself, she, her, hers, herself, we, us, theirs, ours, etc.


Further reading:

Waddingham, A. New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide. 2nd edn. (Oxford, 2014)

Dreyer, B. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. (London, 2019).

Seely, J. Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 2013).

O’Conner, P. T. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. (New York, 2010)

Walsh, B. Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. (New York, 2013)

The Apostrophe Society


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