Academic Tips and Tricks

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Tips and Tricks 2: Apostrophes

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While colloquial uses of apostrophes are rapidly changing (as my boyfriend recently pointed out, MMO’s is the accepted pluralisation of this acronym), it is worth knowing the rules for academic and professional writing, as you’re far more likely to encounter the pedantic types who really care about grammar and punctuation in these areas. So here are the uses of apostrophes:

Contractions
Contracted words are words which are either words with bits missing, or words consisting of two words put together, with bits missed out. E.g:
don’t (do not)
it’s (it is)
or the incredible naval term fo’c’sle (forecastle, referring to the upper deck of the ship)
notice in all of these that the apostrophe replaces the missing letter, it is don’t, not do’nt.
Though please note, normally contractions should not be used in academic writing, wherever possible, use the full form.

Ownership
Apostrophes can denote ownership, such as “Mary’s hat”. This is the most commonly incorrectly used form as the apostrophe is often placed wrongly, or, these can be confused with plurals, leading to mistakes such as “apple’s”.

The rule is: for singular ownership, the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’:
The cat’s milk (one cat owns some milk)
Bob’s trousers

For plural owners, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’:
The cats’ food (food belonging to multiple cats)
the mothers’ children (multiple children belonging to multiple mothers)
Freshers’ Fair (the fair for many freshers)

There are however, some exceptions, which only make things more confusing… e.g.:

  • The pronoun ‘it’ does not take an apostrophe to denote ownership, “it’s” always means  the contracted form of “it is” and never “the thing belonging to ‘it'”, the correct way of writing “the thing belonging to ‘it'” is “its” as in: The creature chased its tail.
  • Irregular nouns which look different when plural (i.e. those where something other than just “adding an ‘s'” happens, such as ‘mice’ or ‘children’ not ‘mouses’ or ‘childs’) have the apostrophe before the ‘s’ when plural to denote ownership, so not “the childrens’ coats” but “the children’s coats”
  • There is the option, though many people choose seemingly arbitrarily on this rule, of using just an apostrophe, rather than apostrophe plus ‘s’ to denote ownership on words which end in ‘s’: “James’ book”, though many place names, and even the name of my old secondary school, choose to ignore this rule “King James’s Square” “Lord Williams’s School”

Plurals
Apostrophes are never used to denote plurals. Not even plurals of acronyms such as “CD” or “CEO”, these are always CDs, CEOs, apples etc. Apostrophes are also not used to denote decades such as “the 80s”, though this is a rule which seems to be in a state of flux and may not continue to be correct usage for much longer as uses such as ‘the 80’s’ and ‘CD’s’ are frequently seen.

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Author: Liz

Hi, I'm Liz. I like easy crafts, photography, cooking, lifestyle blogs and YouTube videos. I work as a part-time proofreader and am currently studying for a PhD in linguistics.

3 thoughts on “Tips and Tricks 2: Apostrophes

  1. Goolgle ‘Grammar Girl’. She does tips like this better.

    • Her website is good but seems hard to navigate. She is also a professional author, which obviously means she has more experience. I’d be interested to know in what way you consider her tips better as I’d like to improve my writing style.

      Also, this blog intends to focus on academic writing tips, please stay posted for tips on referencing, footnotes and paragraph structure, which are particularly useful for University students.

  2. Pingback: Tips and Tricks 9: Colons and Semicolons « Academic Tips and Tricks

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