In many ways we’d be better off without the apostrophe, judging by the frequency with which it’s incorrectly used, its functions misunderstood.
Here’s a handy guide.
- singular possessor: John’s book
- singular possessor ending in S: James’s is preferable to James’, but both are OK; and the possessive form of many biblical and classical names traditionally leaves out the additional S (Jesus’, Claudius’)
- plural possessors: the Singhs’ house is next to the Joneses’ house [not the Jones’ house – or, heaven forfend, the Jone’s – but the Jones house (non-possessive) would be fine (see ‘Is it plural or possessive?’, below)]
- no apostrophe: possessive pronouns (his, hers, ours, yours, theirs, whose and the sometimes troublesome its, not to mention mine)
- it’s (it is); also what’s up, let’s (let us), who’s who, don’t, you’re (that is, you are; never to be confused with the possessive your) etc.
- note, however, that some contractions take a period (‘Mr.’, ‘St.’ for ‘Saint’) – although they could usefully lose that, as they have in the UK
- don’t go here! but people do; I saw this apostrophe catastrophe in a publication from one of the Seven Sisters: the legislature’s intention to provide substantial protections to franchisee’s [it’s the second apostrophe that’s wrong, I hasten to add]
- this is the dreaded ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (tomato’s, bean’s …)
- traditional to pluralise some things with an apostrophe (dot your i’s and cross your t’s)
- better to use capitals and drop the apostrophe (cross your Ts)
- this may help you avoid the temptation to use an apostrophe when you absolutely must not (see franchisee’s above)
Is it plural or possessive?
- some things could go either way: British Bankers’ Association (possessive) and Canadian Bankers Association (plural, adjectival noun) are both correct; similarly, shareholders’ agreement/shareholders agreement
- some things probably could not: Keep out, police dog’s working
Law firm names
- apostrophes have been creeping in (e.g. Gilbert’s LLP, which to me has the somewhat unfortunate ring of ‘Gilbert’s very own little LLP’)
- confusion with the plural at work here?
- but be careful with that too: Torys is correct (two Torys founded it), Stikemans is not (only one Stikeman)
Up next: take a pass on the passive.