Swain's Lane apostrophe illustration

Why should apostrophes matter?

There are lots of grammatical conventions that are up for debate. Capital letters is a big one; often added to bestow an aura of importance, not always deserved. And writers can spend hours agonizing over where best to place a comma to achieve their desired effect. Thankfully, apostrophes are generally black and white in most cases. Yet so often we see them used incorrectly and inconsistently, particularly on signage. Here’s our simple guide to getting it right in your writing.

There are two scenarios when you should happily use an apostrophe:

1. Contraction – to indicate that one or more letters are missing:

  • The designer’s working on it
  • The project’s on target

2. Possession – to indicate that something belongs to your noun (if you just had to Google what a noun is then don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone). The apostrophe always goes after the noun, whether singular or plural, to show whether it belongs to a single entity or a group of entities:

Singular

  • The designer’s pencil
  • The manager’s decision

Plural

  • The designers’ pencils
  • The managers’ decision

So, we’re all cool with that. Now you know what comes next…what do we do with ‘it’? All you need to remember is that the apostrophe in ‘it’s’ only ever denotes a contraction – think of ‘it is’, ‘it was’, ‘it has’. So when we’re talking about possession, we use ‘its’ – no apostrophe, nothing. If you’re unsure, substitute ‘it is’ (or it has, or it was) and see what happens. If it makes sense then use an apostrophe, if it doesn’t then don’t.

As you’d expect, there are still some grey areas. Take the ubiquitous ‘farmers market’. We’re pretty clear that it’s not a farmer’s market, unless it sells the produce from just one farmer, or you’re talking about the state of the agricultural economy. But should it be farmers’ or farmers? The farmers are involved in the market but normally don’t own it, so it could be argued that ‘farmers’ is an adjective – a description of the type of market – rather than indicating possession. But you could equally successfully argue against that – for example, you would (hopefully) never say ‘tradesmen entrance’. And what about Mother’s Day, Mothers Day, Mothers’ Day? The list goes on.

If your organisation has a house style – and if it doesn’t then please get in touch, we can sort that out for you – you may find it offers specific guidance. For example, companies that run services that use apostrophes (now there’s a niche market) may decide to drop the apostrophe in favour of a neater look for their branding and logos. Seeing ‘Kids’ Club’ in every heading doesn’t make for the easiest read. It may irk the grammar police, but at least it’s a conscious decision to subvert convention, and that’s better then just getting it wrong.