How to use an apostrophe

Posted on March 31, 2015 by


Op-Economica, 31-3-2015 (Proof Reading Services) — Apostrophes tend to present significant challenges for authors, even those who are accustomed to writing in English.

In fact, the correct use of apostrophes has proven so confusing for many writers that there has recently been talk of dispensing with apostrophes altogether, but the problem with such a radical approach is that an apostrophe bears meaning, so when it is added to a word it changes the semantics of that word and thus of the sentence in which the word appears. ‘Of’ can be used before a noun to create a similar effect in some instances – ‘the editor of the journal’ instead of ‘the journal’s editor,’ for instance – but not in all situations, so apostrophes are necessary to effective communication in the English language, and using them correctly is essential when writing academic or scientific papers for publication in scholarly journals.

Apostrophes are used primarily in formal scholarly prose to indicate possession. A standard singular possessive (or genitive) is usually formed by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s’ (’s) to the end of a word, but in some cases and especially for plural forms, an apostrophe alone is added; more rarely, an ‘s’ alone is added and, most rarely, ‘se’ is added. Because the correct format for the genitive of any particular word is somewhat unpredictable and is in many cases based on pronunciation or euphony, it can at times be difficult to decide what the correct format should be, especially for authors who are not native speakers of English. To help with the decisions necessary when using apostrophes to form possessives, this and future postings will list and discuss situations in which the different possessive forms should be used.

Both an apostrophe and an ‘s’ should be added to form the possessive case of:

  • Singular nouns, as in ‘the man’s suit’ and ‘the glass’s contents.’
  • Singular proper nouns/names referring to people, places and businesses, as in ‘Samantha’s house,’ ‘James’s book,’ ‘Marx’s theory,’ ‘England’s counties,’ and ‘a Levi’s outlet.’
  • Indefinite or impersonal pronouns such as ‘one,’ ‘anyone’ and ‘everything,’ as in ‘one must follow one’s instincts’ or ‘it could be anyone’s apartment.’
  • Singular acronyms and initialisms, as in ‘WHO’s policies’ (with WHO standing for ‘World Health Organization’) or ‘the MLA’s style’ (with MLA standing for the ‘Modern Language Association’).
  • Singular dates, as in ‘2013’s warmest day’ and ‘2001’s memorable disaster.’
  • Plural nouns that do not end in an ‘s,’ as in ‘women’s clothing’ and ‘the children’s playground.’