By in Tutorials

English Mechanics: Using the Apostrophe

Incorrect use of the apostrophe is one of the most common mistakes in English writing. And often, the mistakes are made by native English speakers . Whether teachers are no longer taking the time to demonstrate and correct apostrophe usage or whether people are just forgetting those lessons in adulthood, using an apostrophe where none is needed is a giant red flag. It cheapens your writing and detracts from any intelligent message you are trying to communicate.

It's important that a writer learn or review the rules about apostrophe use. A large percentage of grammar errors are due to a lack of understanding of basic English mechanics. These concepts are generally much more straight forward than other concepts in English, such as spelling and the use of idioms. Do take the time to strengthen your grasp of mechanics, starting with the correct use of the humble apostrophe.

Correct Use of the Apostrophe

In the English language the apostrophe has two main uses:

1) Use an apostrophe to form a contraction :

I have ” becomes “ I've ” in its contacted form.

The apostrophe replaces a letter or group of letters removed – in this case it replaces the letters “h” and “a” from the word “have.”

2) Use an apostrophe with a noun to show possession :

The bow of the ship, ” can also be written, “ The ship's bow .”

The dolls belonging to the girls, ” can also be written, “ The girls' dolls .”

The toys belonging to the children ,” can also be written, “ The children's toys .”

In this case the apostrophe stands in for the “of” or “belonging to” concept. In the case of a singular noun, it also helps to distinguish the possessive noun from the plural noun . In the sentence above the ship possesses the bow, but there is only one ship. Notice that when the noun is a plural ending in “s,” the apostrophe is place after that “s.”

The possessive form of the noun is also called the genitive case . You may be more familiar with this term if your mother tongue is one that declines its nouns.

Misuses Of The Apostrophe

Form the plural without the apostrophe:

What prompted me to write this post is the many other posts I've read in which a plural is formed using the apostrophe.

Incorrect: I like dog's and cat's .

Correct: I like dogs and cats.

Conjugate verbs without the apostrophe:

You may also sometimes see people misusing the apostrophe to write the third-person form of some English words.

Incorrect: God love's you.

Correct: God loves you.

Incorrect: My son go's to the school at the end of the street.

Correct: My son goes to the school at the end of the street.

Form the possessive of pronouns like “it” and “her” without the apostrophe:

Possessive pronouns don't use an apostrophe. The whole group represents an exception to the rule about using an apostrophe to form the possessive. Pronouns such as his, her, your, our, their, and it don't need an apostrophe when you form the possessive. In general, simply add an “s” to indicate possession. “His” is the correct possessive form of the pronoun “him.”

Incorrect: The leopard is known for it's spots.

Correct: The leopard is known for its spots.

Incorrect: The book on the table is your's .

Correct: The book on the table is yours.

Words like our's and their's don't exist, so your spell checker should flag them automatically. But “it's” won't be flagged in a simple spell check, because it is a valid English word. Be careful not to confuse the possessive form its ( belonging to it) with the contraction it's ( “it is” or sometimes “it has.” )

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Image credit: © Kyla Matton Osborne

Note: Adapted from an article I originally published at Bubblews

Image Credit » Kyla Matton Osborne

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MegL wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:13 PM

Very useful. Another kind of mistake some people make that annoys me is using "could of", instead of "could have". I do not even know where they get that from but in this part of the world, it is common to hear, "He could of done that", instead of "he could have done that". And don't even get me started on the use of "seen" and "done".

Ruby3881 wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:19 PM

It comes from the contraction "could've." We rarely see it in print - and my browser thinks it's a misspelled word! But when people write "could of," they are writing the contraction how they hear it.

Kasman wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:22 PM

Punctuation is confusing isn't it? I don't always get it right and I'm constantly trying to better my knowledge of English grammar

soupdragon wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:32 PM

It's surprising how many people still don't understand how to use an apostrophe and just stick one in whenever they put an 's'. But then again, I don't know if this is actually taught in school. I don't think it was when I was at school and it's something you either learn for yourself or keep making mistakes over for the rest of your life.

Ruby3881 wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:34 PM

I can't honestly say I've ever found English mechanics confusing. Whatever hadn't been absorbed through reading and listening to others speak, was taught in our primary years. It just takes practice to commit most of the concepts to memory.

I truly think the problem we have today is that more people are writing (on computers) more often than ever before, and fewer teachers are bothering to teach basic mechanics of the language in the first few grades of school. Heck, I've actually seen a seventh grade teacher form a plural with an apostrophe! If the teachers don't themselves have a decent mastery of the English language, we can't expect their pupils will gain one.

Ruby3881 wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:44 PM

I can attest that both the formation of a plural noun and the use of apostrophes in possessives and contractions were taught in school, going back four decades or so. I have also seen both in contemporary language arts resources. Whether or not teachers are including those lessons is, I think, quite variable today.

It used to be considered pretty standard to have "board work" in language arts. Every single day we were taught a different principle of English usage, and every day we were expected to write out a series of sentences in full - with the correct form of a word added in. I think having to copy the whole sentence, as opposed to just writing the one word in a blank space, also had a lot to do with the fact that we learned and remembered. We were actually using the word in context. With fill-in-the-blanks worksheets things are faster for teachers, but kids learn less.

Elfbwillow wrote on January 11, 2015, 1:51 PM

Very useful to both Enlish speakers as well as those learning. Apostrophe usage is very important in a lot of different sentences

kcmaice wrote on January 11, 2015, 2:35 PM

Thank you for sharing, I will be using this as reference for future posts :)

celticeagle wrote on January 11, 2015, 4:03 PM

Always enjoyed the use of the apostrophe. This seems very clear.

MelissaE wrote on January 11, 2015, 7:13 PM

Thank you for such a thorough post. Teachers still teach the use of the apostrophe; but, like most things, it takes time and repetition. As for adults not using them correctly? I'm calling pure laziness on that one.

MelissaE wrote on January 11, 2015, 7:16 PM

I think people use "could of" because when we use the contraction "could've" for "could have" they hear "could of."

MelissaE wrote on January 11, 2015, 7:17 PM

Oh, I just saw your response. It's the same as mine. Smiles from a Geeky Grammarian!

MelissaE wrote on January 11, 2015, 7:20 PM

@ruby3881: You've hit the nail on the head. People don't remember, and it's not being taught in school as much as it should be. I don't want to get into politics, but we've dropped the basics from education (another post) in the misguided attempt to get everyone to college. As an Old Dinosaur, I still have what you've referred to as "board work." I call it Daily Practice. I take a basic skill, like apostrophes or capitalization, and the kids write sentences using that rule. Then, once I've taught a rule, the students keep it in their journals and are expected to use it in their sacred writing time.

BodieMor wrote on January 11, 2015, 11:25 PM

Terrific tutorial on something I pounded into my son during elementary school, since his teachers, for the most part, did not. &Ruby388 , from what I understand, education in Canada is somewhat less thorough than it was decades ago -- like elsewhere in this world, I'm sure. Plus, texting is such a huge part of communication these days, which makes it easy for kids to disregard "rules" in their hurry to send a missive...

stbrians wrote on January 11, 2015, 11:59 PM

VERY well researched and very educative. Thank you very much for the information. There are times i ignore the apostrophe persposely. Just the way i have ignored writing i in capital letters.

bestwriter wrote on January 12, 2015, 2:05 AM

I could add a few more mistakes that I come across. At the same time it is possible that when in a hurry there could be errors although the one who types knows the correct way to type.
Many native speakers use' their and 'there' wrongly as also they say 'use to' instead of 'used to'. This is because they start learning the language phonetically before they get a formal grounding.
My nephew when he was a little kid was asked 'what happened' and his reply was 'nothing tappened. (lol)

Ruby3881 wrote on January 12, 2015, 11:04 AM

Great minds think alike! BTW, I love the brightly coloured avatar emoticon :smile:

Ruby3881 wrote on January 12, 2015, 11:08 AM

Oh Melissa, we could write whole books on the reasons the education system today is failing a whole generation of kids! Good on you, both for the Daily Practice and the sacred writing time!

I notice you were trying to tag me. Two things that might help you: 1) If you use the reply link at the right of a comment, you don't need to tag the person whose comment you are replying to because the system notifies us already; 2) if you do need to tag, use an ampersand (& ) and the person's username. Hope that helps!

Ruby3881 wrote on January 12, 2015, 11:29 AM

I think a lot of teachers are skipping over the basics today, because the curriculum expects them to teach so many additional things that kids would probably pick up on their own anyway. Almost no teachers include even five minutes a day of penmanship, for example. And almost no teacher asks students to copy work in their own hand, preferring instead to run up huge photocopying bills for the school because it's just faster to get kids to fill in the blanks.

Yes, a lot of people are just plain lazy. And a lot have fallen into bad habits because of texting. But when we see people forming plurals or conjugating verbs with an "'s," I think what we're seeing is a lack of education when it counted.

Probably the majority of people making those errors filled in enough blanks correctly to pass each grade along the way. But because it was all one-word answers and not the word written in context, when they come to type out a sentence the words feel funny and they lose confidence in their own ability to write their mother tongue. Then they fall into the terrible habit of doing what they see done by their peers, rather than taking the time to look it up - or even just to read a few books that was professionally edited, now and again!

Ruby3881 wrote on January 12, 2015, 12:28 PM

I find that such stylistic variations are more of a distraction than anything. Especially online. Things like capital letters, punctuation marks, and spaces between sentences may seem optional these days, but they make it easier for our eyes and brains to process text.

Most of us are not e.e. cummings, and need those tools. Those who eschew them will generally find people tend to skip over their writing without really reading it.

HappyLady wrote on January 12, 2015, 2:16 PM

It is hard to write English correctly and some never learn. I suspect grammar is not taught as well as it once was. My pet hate is seeing articles which do not use capital "I" correctly.

mrsmerlin wrote on January 13, 2015, 6:42 AM

A lot of the time it is the grammar checkers that are at fault. I have used the apostrophe in the correct manner on occasions and found it being flagged as incorrectly used.

MsBiz wrote on January 13, 2015, 12:51 PM

Thank you for posting this. As a former writing instructor (4-year university level), I was surprised how many highly intelligent students came out of high school struggling with apostrophes. We definitely need to do a better job of teaching grammar. I think the Internet's going to be where it has to start.

Koalemos wrote on January 13, 2015, 8:15 PM

Native English speakers are by far the biggest culprits for this misuse of the apostrophe, which seems to be due to the fact that most people learning English as a foreign language take a greater interest.

Ruby3881 wrote on January 14, 2015, 3:24 PM

Autocorrect is another tool that tends to mess things up. I can't tell you the things it sometimes does to my texts!

Ruby3881 wrote on January 14, 2015, 3:30 PM

I'll agree with the first part of your comment. I don't know that I've seen any evidence that either native or foreign writers of English take a greater interest in being grammatically correct, as a group. Each group just tends to make different types of errors.

Ruby3881 wrote on January 14, 2015, 3:31 PM

Thank you, Theresa! I take that as a high compliment!

Ruby3881 wrote on January 14, 2015, 3:33 PM

I share that peeve! I also dislike run-on sentences that have few capitals and less use of punctuation.

Sheilamarie78 wrote on January 15, 2015, 10:46 AM

I agree with you. Some of these seemingly unimportant errors really annoy the reader. It's important to be careful using commas.

Sheilamarie78 wrote on January 15, 2015, 10:49 AM

Now that was an example of someone NOT being careful. I meant to say "apostrophes," not "commas." You can tell I just woke up and am not totally with it yet!

agvulpes wrote on January 16, 2015, 1:53 AM

Ruby3881 a great tutorial on the use of the Apostrophe and one I will be bookmarking for future reference. Most time I try to avoid using the apostrophe for fear of placing it in the wrong place :)

Ruby3881 wrote on January 16, 2015, 10:07 PM

Commas are a problem too - though not nearly as much of one as apostrophes are emoticon :smile: