This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 1:29 PM

The apostrophe – it’s a lot more than a little black mark

Seeing a misused apostrophe gives me the same feeling as scraping my finger nails down a blackboard. It’s particularly annoying when the mistake appears on an in-your-face sign outside of a shop, restaurant, office or is stuck on the side of a building.

It’s an easy thing to do when we are busy and rushing to get copy out. But if you know apostrophes are a problem area for you, get your copy checked by someone else before you send it.

It’s or its?

If you remember the apostrophe usually replaces a word, it’s really quite easy. For example the last sentence could have been written ‘it is really quite easy’.

One of the most common mistakes in punctuation is to confuse its with it’s.

Unlike other examples of possessive plurals that end in s, when you write about something belonging to ‘it’, never use an apostrophe. For example:

The cat was on its cushion – not, the cat was on it’s cushion.

I find it easier to think of the apostrophe as a replacement word. With the last example there is no word to replace.


With most words ending in s, the apostrophe replaces belonging to or of. So, ‘of the company’ or ‘belonging to the company’ could be written ‘the company’s’.

This rule applies even with a name that ends in s for example:

James’s car.
Thomas’s pen.

However I think that looks so clumsy. Sometimes it’s better to find another way of writing the sentence. I also think it’s a rule that’s on its way out if national newspapers are a guide.

As you might expect there are some exceptions to this rule. However they aren’t names that are very likely to crop up very often in business letters or reports. Examples are:

See what I mean? I can’t remember the last time I dropped one of those into website or newsletter copy.

The reason is simple though. There is no second s because none of the examples are pronounced with another s at the end.

Possessive plurals

Some people get confused whether the apostrophe goes before or after the s. It only ever goes after with a plural noun for example:

Just to make things a little tricky, not all plurals end in s – children and women are two examples. In these cases the apostrophe goes before the s:

Common mistakes

As well as it’s instead of its, there are other common apostrophe mistakes.

Tomatoe’s, apple’s, potatoe’s. That’s why it’s become known as a grocer’s apostrophe. A bit unfair really because it’s not just grocers who are guilty of this one. I saw a really irritating example of this on a poster for Coffee Primo at Warwick service station on the M40 (nothing like a bit of naming and shaming!). It was designed to tempt weary travellers to sample their Christmas scone’s, gingerbread cappuccino’s and cranberry muffin’s. Grrrrr. And I’ve just seen this “working in Tesco’s”.

Fewer or Less | Plainly Speaking

Print this page

Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

I hope you enjoy it and find it useful. And speaking of useful - scroll down and take a look at the Oxford Dictionaries tool.

Click here to find out a bit more about me.

Word Alchemy Blog