Improve Your Spelling: Apostrophes

Who would have thought that such a little mark could cause so much confusion? But such is the fate of the poor little apostrophe, that simple punctuation mark: '.

The cause of such confusion is that the apostrophe is used for several different things.

Note: If you are serious about improving your spelling, then Troy and I highly recommend you try the popular spelling-improvement software Ultimate Spelling.*

An apostrophe is used to indicate a contraction or elision, where a letter or two has been dropped from a word: hasn't (has not), mightn't (might not), that's (that is), it's (it is), and so on.

And an apostrophe is also used to indicate possession, usually with an "s" nearby. Becky's hat, plant's leaves, chipmunks' burrows, James's jelly snakes, and so on.

(Very occasionally the apostrophe is used in some unusual forms, such as in "Minding your P's and Q's" or "In the 1990's") — and there is always debate about whether these forms are acceptable or not.)

Understandably it is all too easy to get confused between these two forms. When you add in the fact that most plural nouns in English are formed by adding an "s", it makes a huge mess. People remember something about "apostrophe s" from a long distant class at primary school, and get confused.

You will often see what is sometimes called the "grocer's apostrophe" (often seen on signs at greengrocers), where simple plurals are confused with possessive forms: peach's (which actually means "belonging to the peaches") — when the grocer really means the plural of peach: peaches. Or cucumber's (cucumbers is correct), or parsnip's and carrot's (parsnips and carrots is correct) — you get the idea!

Grocers aren't the only offenders. I'm sure if you start to look around at the shops you'll see this apostrophe abuse everywhere. Watch's on sale (it should be watches), hamburger's and chip's (hamburgers and chips), girls dress's (girls' (plural possessive) dresses (plural) is correct). It's as if there's a warning that an "s" is coming — Look out! There's an "s" ahead! I don't know if it's a possessive, or a plural, or a contraction, or what on earth to do with it, so we'll pop an apostrophe in there just in case!

What is the trick for getting your apostrophe use right, and helping to stamp out apostrophe abuse? Well, there isn't really a single trick, apart from having a better understanding of what you're writing, and what parts of speech they are. If you're writing about something that is plural (more than one object), then the "s" needs no adornment, just add an "s" and be on your way. If you're saying something a little more complicated, and talking about something that something owns or some property it has, then you're probably looking at a possessive case, and an "apostrophe s" is called for.

For more clarification on the possessive forms, check out my articles on Singular Possessives, Plural Possessives, Possessive Pronouns, and ITS and IT'S

Here are a few exercises to practise on. In each case, select the correct usage from the various options, and for extra marks figure out why that choice is correct (contraction, plural, or possession). The answers are below.


1. a) Flower's for your honey! b) Flowers for your honey!

2. a) It's Josie's birthday today. b) It's Josies birthday today.

3. a) Kates driving me crazy. b) Kate's driving me crazy.

4. a) It's streets were treacherous. b) Its streets were treacherous.

5. a) The festivals budgets were cut severely. b) The festivals' budgets were cut severely.

6. a) The army of rabid ducks surged through the town. b) The army of rabid duck's surged through the town.

7. a) We have lovely bananas! b) We have lovely banana's!

8. a)  It's the right thing to do. b) Its the right thing to do.

9. a) My lettuces leaves have wilted. b) My lettuce's leaves have wilted.

10. a) I have a lot of lettuce's in my garden. b) I have a lot of lettuces in my garden.


1. b (plural) 2. a (possessive) 3. b (contraction of "Kate is") 4. b (possessive) 5. b (possessive) 6. a (plural) 7 a (plural) 8 a (contraction of "It is") 9 b (possessive) 10 b (plural)

*Troy and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Spelling. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Spelling because we are happy to endorse that spelling-improvement software.


Last modified on Friday, 27 November 2015 23:32
English Language Skills (Denise)

English Language Skills (Denise)

I'm a syndicated puzzle writer, with 8 puzzle books to my name, including Word Searches for Dummies and Cracking Codes and Cryptograms for Dummies (with Mark Koltko-Rivera). I have a background in science and graphic design, and am a trained indexer. My favourite puzzles are cryptic crosswords. and my favourite books are murder mysteries and cookbooks. I am also a very keen knitter.

I write a blog all about puzzles, called Puzzling.

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