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For such a tiny punctuation mark, the apostrophe has an enormous capacity to confuse and irritate people.
The reaction to this all-too-common frustration is generally one of two extremes. The first is to try to cut them out altogether (like Birmingham council planned to do, as we reported back in March). The alternative is to start sprinkling them as liberally as an overzealous Italian waiter sprinkles black pepper. Then, at least, a few of them are likely to hit the right spot.
The problem with such excessive â€“ or minimal â€“ seasoning is that the overall effect of the dish (or document) will be compromised, or even completely undermined.
One of the apostropheâ€™s key jobs is to show possession. More specifically, it shows who possesses something. And identifying the â€˜whoâ€™ in the sentence will make inserting the apostrophe and the -s (if needed â€“ see below) that much simpler: just look to the end of the â€˜whoâ€™ word, and add them afterwards. For example:
The catâ€™s top hat and bow tie were very distinguished.
Here thereâ€™s clearly one well-dressed cat. But if there were two, or more, such dapper felines, each with their own outfits, it would be:
The catsâ€™ dinner jackets and fob watches were to die for.
Youâ€™ll notice that thereâ€™s no need for an extra -s when the â€˜whoâ€™ in possession is made plural. Though with a word that is inherently plural, you would. So:
The childrenâ€™s catsâ€™ dress sense was not to everyoneâ€™s taste.
So far, so straightforward. But there are a few points of potential confusion left yet.
This is actually quite simple. Possessive adjectives and pronouns (yours, whose, his, hers, theirs) will never need an apostrophe, because they donâ€™t need any extra help to show possession. You might say:
Whose apostrophe? Certainly not yours.
â€˜Itsâ€™ meaning â€˜belonging to itâ€™ can also be put into this category: it doesnâ€™t need an apostrophe either. What can cause problems is that it's entirely understandable to assume it would, following the rule laid out above.
In fact, we're so used to typing 'it's' that it can be hard to leave out the apostrophe even when you know it's not needed. [This can happen to anyone, as eagle-eyed readers of last month's Write Away may have spotted â€“ Ed]. But â€˜itâ€™sâ€™ always means â€˜it isâ€™ or â€˜it hasâ€™ â€“ where the apostrophe indicates the contraction (missed out letters).
When a name ends in -s â€“ such as James, Tess or Emphasis â€“ it may not be necessary to include the -s after the apostrophe (or to pronounce it). Rhythm is the secret here, and sometimes either way is fine. Generally, try saying the phrase aloud to see what sounds best (and what doesnâ€™t make you sound like a snake with a stutter). For example:
Tessâ€™s favourite route to work was down St Jamesâ€™s street. Mind you, Emphasisâ€™ top-notch trainers make it clear that it could also be written 'St Jamesâ€™ street'.