That Cute Lil Ol Apostrophe

Have you ever had a student write to tell you they've achieved Grade A's at exams? I have, and one of them was a grade A in English!

The apostrophe seems to be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language, and yet its use is really very simple.

There's really only one rule: an apostrophe is used to replace one or more missing letters.

Nothing more - nothing less.


A contraction is a word that is a shortened form of on or several words through the removal of one or more letters.

The following are examples of commonly used contractions.

Do not -> Don't
Did not -> Didn't
Can not -> Can't
Was not -> Wasn't
We have -> We've
They are -> They're
It is -> It's
It has -> It's

The following are examples of contractions used within a sentence:

The boy is walking the dog -> The boy's walking the dog
I did not steal the buns -> I didn't steal the buns
They were not walking to town -> They weren't walking to town

There are times when we need to write as we would speak. This is especially so when writing dialogue in fiction.

The title of this article "That Cute Li'l Ol' Apostrophe" is an example. Here I've used apostrophes to show the contractions that are made in colloquial speech, as in the case of

Little -> Li'l
Old -> Ol'

You may well believe that the first example is wrong; that there should be an extra apostrophe to denote the missing 'e' at the end of 'little'. That would be wrong.

We never use more than one apostrophe to a word.

While the general rule is to use the apostrophe in place of the last missing letter, such as in "shall not -> shan't", if we need to choose between missing letters that we'd normally pronounce and those that are silent, use the apostrophe to denote the missing sounds.

The use of apostrophes in contractions should be easy to remember. Just think of what the word you're using really represents. If it's two words that have been joined to make one, an apostrophe should be in there somewhere. Likewise if it's a truncated word.


First of all, a possessive is a word that owns the word that follows it. Confused? Let me show you.

My daughter's toys

The toys belong to my daughter, therefore daughter is the possessive word.

The shop's manager

While the shop doesn't actually own the manager, without the shop there would be no manager so shop becomes the possessive. However,

The manager's shop

would also be correct as the manager runs the shop.

Possessives are always nouns.

But hold on.... where are the missing letters?

Good question. To understand the answer, let's quickly zip back in time.

English is a Germanic language and written English originally shared possessive forms with German. If we go back to the 14th century, when Chaucer wrote "Canterbury Tales", we find that possessives didn't include apostrophes, but had an extra "e" added.

For example:

My daughteres toys / The manageres shop

Although that looks very clumsy to us, that was the accepted form of writing possessives in Chaucer's day. As the language has evolved, we've simply removed the extra 'e' and replaced it with an apostrophe. The same applies where a person's name is the possessive:

Lisaes toys / Jameses shop


Lisa's toys / James's shop

Although in the case of words or names that end with an 's', it's also acceptable to write

James' shop

So you see, even when using possessives, the apostrophe is replacing a missing letter.

The Exception To The Rule

The possessive form of 'it' should never include an apostrophe. "It's" is a contraction of "It is" while "its" is the possessive form of "it" which is a pronoun and belong alongside other pronouns such as "his", "hers", "ours", "yours" and "theirs", none of which have apostrophes.

Plural Possessives

The same rule as above applies but the apostrophe is moved.

My sisters' clothes / The dogs' bones

In these instances, the clothes belong to more than one sister and the bones belong to several dogs.

Chaucer would have written:

My sisterses clothes / The dogses bones

The last two letters have been removed and replaced by an apostrophe.

If, however, the possessive is a word that already donates the plural form of another word, as in the case of 'child/children', writing "the childrens' shoes" would be wrong. We already know from the word itself that it means more than one child, making "The children's shoes" the correct way of writing it.

Regular Plurals

Apostrophes are used ONLY in contractions and possessives.

Carrot's for sale - Many duck's on a pond - I bought two CD's - I washed his sock's

The above are all examples of an apostrophe being used to show that a word is plural. DON'T DO IT!

It's wrong.

Some otherwise excellent writers trip up on this point and by using an apostrophe where it isn't called for, the meaning of a sentence can change dramatically.

"Beware: Truck's turning!"

What does this mean? Does the turning belong to the truck? If so, why are we being warned of it? Not that I've ever known a truck to own a turning so I can only assume that the apostrophe has been misused.

"Beware: Trucks turning!"

That's better. Now we're being warned that trucks are likely to turn.


The correct use of apostrophes shouldn't be difficult to understand. It really is a case of "no missing letter - no apostrophe needed". If you remember that possessives also have missing letters and that 'its' is an exception, you'll never need make an apostrophe blunder again.

Sharon Jacobsen is a professional content and copy writer living in Cheshire, England. She's been writing in one form or another for more years than she cares to remember and becomes quite upset when people are unnecessarily sloppy with their apostrophes (or lack of them).

If you'd like Sharon to help you with articles or copy, please contact her through her website at

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