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Apostrophe catastrophe

by Shannon Naylor

One little mark has never been so intimidating. Whether it’s popping up in places it doesn’t belong or disappearing from where it’s needed, the apostrophe can be tricky to use properly. Let’s break it down.

The apostrophe signals one of two things:

  1. There are letters missing. (This is called a contraction.)
  2. The writer is indicating possession, ownership.

Contractions

Ex. I’m (I am), you’re (you are), he’s (he is), let’s (let us)

Contractions are most commonly used in verbal speech, but can appear in writing for a couple of different reasons. When writing dialogue, authors will generally use contractions as people do when they speak out loud. In other professional (but not formal) writing, writers may use contractions to create a laid back, conversational tone. Contractions are generally not appropriate in formal academic writing, so it is a good idea to edit them out of your papers.

Possession

The apostrophe is also used to indicate possession. It answers the question “who owns what?” Let’s say you’re describing a dog owned by your cousin. You could say:

The dog owned by my cousin is adorable.

The dog of my cousin is adorable.

But these sentences are kind of ugly. Let’s use a possessive apostrophe (‘s, also called the genitive case) to make this cleaner.

My cousin’s dog is adorable.

To indicate an owner in the form of a singular noun, add ‘s to the end of the word. (This is what we saw above.)

The dog owned by my cousin becomes my cousin’s dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that ends in s, add just the apostrophe after the s.

The dog owned by my cousins becomes my cousins dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that doesn’t end in s, add ‘s.

The dog owned by the children becomes the children’s dog.

For help with some more complex possessive rules, check out Compound possession: Whose is what?

Shannon Naylor is the CTL post-graduate intern. In her free time, Shannon has been working on the fall musical, Guys and Dolls, as assistant director. 

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