When apostrophes go bad.

I once heard a theory that we have a limited amount of punctuation in the world and that for every colon, question mark, hyphen etc that is bastardised there’s one less that can be used correctly. If that’s the case, then we must be due to run out of apostrophes anytime soon!

The apostrophe (’) in all its uses, but especially in the possessive case, seems to cause no end of grief for agency writers and marketers – its application ranging from irregular use to complete non-use. So here, once and for all, is the definitive guide to the correct use of the humble apostrophe.

1. To show the omission of letters or numerals.

it’s (it is)
couldn’t (could not)
Global Financial Crisis of ’07 (2007)

2. To form the plural of letters, figures, symbols or words that do not ordinarily form plurals, if the omission of the apostrophe would cause difficulty in reading.

do’s and don’ts
5’s, 6’s and 7’s
Mind your p’s and q’s
There are two l’s and n’s in millennium

Just to complicate matters, there are some instances when the apostrophe does not apply or has been largely dispensed with in accepted current practice, for example:


3. To indicate possession. Here’s a rule I learned at intermediate school that works a treat and is easy to remember. Ask yourself who or what the noun belongs to and then place the possessive apostrophe after them or it.

A child’s toy. Who does the toy belong to? The child, so the apostrophe precedes the possessive –s.
The heroes’ decorations. Who do the decorations belong to? The heroes, so the apostrophe follows the possessive –s.
One year’s time. What does the time belong to? The year, so the apostrophe precedes the possessive –s.
Three years’ time. What does the time belong to? The years, so the apostrophe follows the possessive –s.

The apostrophe is not generally used in NZ placenames, with two notable exceptions being Arthur’s Pass and Hawke’s Bay (even businesses in the province get this wrong!).

4. Nouns ending in -s.

The increasingly common way to tackle this is to just add the apostrophe.

Prince Charles’ visit (as opposed to Prince Charles’s visit)

5. Pronouns.

The apostrophe is redundant where pronouns are already possessive.


But with one exception (its), it is used where pronouns are used possessively.

one’s body
each other’s body
someone’s clothes
somebody else’s clothes
anybody’s hat
its mouth (exception)

6. Collective nouns.

The possessive apostrophe is increasingly omitted in the spelling of proper names of a collective order.

Local Bodies Association
Employers Federation
United Nations meeting
Boys High School
United States control
Womens Institute

So there you have it – everything you ever wanted to know about apostrophes but were too afraid to ask. As you can see, using them correctly isn’t rocket science and, with a little bit of thought and careful editing, we should be able to keep them off the endangered list. Long live the apostrophe!

Drew is Creative Director and Head of Copy for justONE. With thanks to the ‘Style Book’ by Derek Wallace & Janet Hughes.