Apostrophe Catastrophes

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.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Helpful and entertaining (I especially liked the title).

  2. Thanks Neil…great article…sometimes I thought I was the only one that still cared!!!
    Regards Chris

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