Remembering Tricky Apostrophes


You may have spotted the above card on social media. It’s based on a nerdy writer’s joke that has been rehashed in various versions. You can find a longer version at the bottom.

Apostrophes can seem to be one of the trickier methods of punctuation. They have inspired a cult like passion in people that revel in highlighting ‘grocer’s apostrophes’ and there are websites and books dedicated to pointing out ‘apostrophe errors’.

In contrast there are regular calls to abolish the apostrophe altogether with claims that it isn’t (or isnt) necessary for modern writing. Many local authorities have dispensed with using apostrophes on street signs and many shops drop them from their signage. Some people get quite angry about this and there are ongoing campaigns to ‘save’ and ‘preserve’ the apostrophe.

Such feverish attention to detail can be intimidating but teaching the use of them isn’t too difficult. They have two particular uses which is to ‘indicate missing letters’ and ‘show possession’ and you can find resources for these here.

A simple approach to remembering where to place a possessive apostrophe is to use an ‘Apostrophe Arrow‘. For this you simply point the apostrophe directly to the ‘owner’ (this works for singular and plural).

The exception to this is the example provided in the joke which is that a possessive apostrophe isn’t used with ‘its’. So for example:

The dog’s dinner. (The apostrophe is directly after the owner (the dog))
The dog ate the cat’s dinner. (Still directly after the owner (naughty dog))
The dog ate it’s dinner. (Except we don’t use an apostrophe this way (good dog, naughty apostrophe)
The dog ate its dinner. (Good dog, no apostrophe, happy grammar people)

This can be confusing and there’s no clear explanation for why we don’t stick a possessive apostrophe in its. To avoid sticking one there we need to remember the following:

We only use an apostrophe in it’s to indicate ‘it is’.

You can read more about the quirks of punctuation marks in Monster Punctuation.

Here’s the longer version of the nerdy writer’s joke (you can download a copy from here):


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