Apostrophe catastrophe

By January 15, 2017English usage

When you consider how much more difficult it was to get an education when I was a kid (you had to look up books to find out stuff), it is annoying that I can spell, as well as construct and punctuate sentences with relative ease, while many people, not just the younger generation, find these processes almost impossible to negotiate successfully.

One aspect of this, which constantly annoys me, is people’s inability to cope with apostrophes. These look simple enough, as they are basically a dot with a tail below it, and when used they are placed at about the top of lower case letters in a sentence. This is how they are used.

The Possessive Case

They are used to indicate the possessive case. This is where an item is ‘owned’ by a person or another item. For instance: If Joan owns a house, it is Joan’s house. The ‘s is used to show that it is Joan that owns the house. Similarly, if a briefcase has a handle, it is the briefcase’s handle.

There are a couple of complications, however. If the ‘owner’ has a name that ends in an s, then it is usual to just insert the apostrophe after the name, while leaving off the s. For instance: If my boss has a cat, it is not my boss’s cat, but my boss’ cat.

Also, if several people own something, then the plural noun is used. Often in English a plural noun is constructed by adding s or es to the end of a word. For instance. If a boy goes for a night out it is that boy’s night out, but if two boys are going for a night out, it is the boys’ night out. Here, the word doing the possessing is plural, because there are two boys, and as above we do not add an ‘s’ after the apostrophe.


Another common use of apostrophes is in contractions. These are commonly used in English, aren’t they? That word, aren’t, is a contraction of two words are and not. What I said was: These are commonly used in English are not they? Other contractions are it’s (e.g. it’s going to rain), which is a contraction of the words it and is. Others are can’t (can not), wouldn’t (would not), you’ll (you will), you’d (you should or you would), shouldn’t (should not), shan’t (shall not).

One other complication is that, because it’s is a contraction, when you are dealing with something that is owned by the it concerned, you would expect it to be it’s, but to avoid confusion, the possessive case of it dispenses with the apostrophe. For instance, if you are referring to a cat’s basket, you use its basket.

No apostrophe required

You DO NOT use an apostrophe to create a plural. If you have two cats and you refer to them as our cat’s, you are a moron. If you sometimes say: that house is our’s, English is clearly not your strong suit, and you should pretend you cannot write because of some infirmity.

If you are a scientist and in reference to the work of others, you do not say: Smith et al’s (1990) work. This clearly demonstrates, that you should do something else with your life. Become a priest, or a rugby player, or a politician (people need a laugh). The correct way to refer to this work is: the work of Smith et al. (1990).

There are numerous other unusual odd uses of apostrophes which are too numerous to list here. So, if you want to be full bottle on all the vagaries of the apostrophe’s usage (possessive case!), then check out:





  • Silvana says:

    hear hear its’ about time this is addressed… 🙂 its so annoying when people misuse this!
    thoroughly enjoyed reading this, sadly the people who should read this, won’t …

  • Wendy McLeod says:

    Read ‘Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris for more similar observations.

  • Arthur Baker says:

    “If you have two cats and you refer to them as our cat’s, you are a moron.”

    I think that’s a bit harsh. Everybody has weak points in their education. The world is so full of stuff you really can’t learn everything perfectly. There are huge areas of human knowledge in which I admit to something between partial or imperfect knowledge and complete ignorance. People who refer to “our two cat’s” may be morons. On the other hand, they may be intelligent people who have just somehow missed that point during a (probably boring) grammar lesson at a young age.

    “English is clearly your second or third language, and you should pretend you cannot write because of some infirmity.”

    That’s a bit judgmental too. French is my second language, and I started learning it too late to ever attain native fluency, but I am expert enough in French to have successfully taught English to French-speakers and French to English-speakers. I never pretend my command of French is perfect, and that doesn’t prevent me from having a go when I’m in French-speaking territory. My efforts, both written and spoken, are usually well-received. I welcome corrections and criticism of my French, but I certainly don’t regard my inability to speak absolutely perfect French as an “infirmity”. It’s just a natural consequence of not being a native speaker, and beginning the acquisition process too late ever to become one.

    Perhaps if you had studied Linguistics, you might be less judgmental of people who are doing their best to master your native language. And perhaps you should be flattered that they find your native language important enough in their lives to want to master it, thus saving you the trouble of learning theirs.

    • admin says:

      I wasn’t talking about people learning English as a second language. I was talking about native speakers and my frustration probably comes from talking to a large number of trumpettes. Almost to a person, they are unable to punctuate sentences correctly and, in some cases, their grammar has been so poor that their meaning is obscure at best. My French is poor, and comes from four years of it at school in the distant past. My Russian and German are both only up to the standard of translating stuff that I needed for work. Tried learning Chinese too, but all I obtained was an understanding of how the characters were constructed.

  • Arthur Baker says:

    “If you sometimes say: that house is our’s, English is clearly your second or third language, and you should pretend you cannot write because of some infirmity.”

    In this statement, you clearly were talking about people learning English as a second, or even third, language. I’m not sure how you can credibly deny this. People learning English are just like you trying to gain some expertise in another language.

    If “trumpettes'” punctuation and grammar is poor, why not ignore that and address the factual accuracy of what they write and say?

    • admin says:


      It was a snide way of putting people down. Perhaps I’ll rephrase it. I actually do attempt to address the accuracy of trumpettes’ assertions, and have just recently finished a piece in reply to one of the few trumpettes who is actually able to write coherently. However, the problem with many of them is that their English is so poor that it sometimes obscures what I suspect they mean. In some cases I have had to ask them what they mean, in the hope that they can rewrite their item clearly. Sometimes, I give them options based on my attempted deciphering of their content.

  • Arthur Baker says:

    “If you have two cats and you refer to them as our cat’s, you are a moron. If you sometimes say: that house is our’s, English is clearly not your strong suit, and you should pretend you cannot write because of some infirmity.”

    That all looks pretty discriminatory to me. You might need to take a look at your attitude to other people’s use of language. Sure, if people’s use of English meaning is unclear and you have to ask for clarification, fair enough, but at least try to understand that Australia is a nation based on immigration, and a whole lot of people in this country are working their socks off to become fluent in our language.

  • Che says:

    Cannot is written as one word, not two.

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