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To apostrophe or not to apostrophe

Big red apostrophe with 'It's not possessive!' text

Poor grammar bugs many of us. And when it comes to your website content and other forms of marketing communication, sloppy mistakes detract from your message. And your brand.

People notice.

The apostrophe is possibly the most misused and abused punctuation mark of them all.

So here’s a quick run-down on when you should and shouldn’t use the apostrophe.

When TO use an apostrophe

1. As a contraction

We use contractions to shorten or informalise our communication by combining two words to form one.

Examples include we’ll, can’t, won’t, should’ve, could’ve and so on.

An apostrophe in a contraction shows the reader that one or more letters is missing.

2. Possessive use

Here, an apostrophe is used to show when something or someone belongs to something or someone else.

Examples include Sarah’s work, Australia’s population or your partner’s mess.

And if we are talking about more than one of something, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ to show there is more than one.

So if you have more than one brother, you would say “my brothers’ children” (assuming you are talking about the children of more than one of your brothers). And if there is more than one dog, you would say “the dogs’ kennels.”

When NOT to use an apostrophe

1. The word ‘its’

I was watching television the other day when this scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

“The Masterchef countdown is on. Don’t miss it’s final days!

Can you see the problem?

Just think how many Channel 10 staff would have approved this text before it appeared in millions of Australian homes. Yet, the error somehow slipped through. Unbelievable.

Many of us automatically include the apostrophe on the word it’s without thinking. Either that, or people simply don’t understand how to apply it correctly.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb:

Only include an apostrophe when ‘it’s’ is a contraction for ‘it is’. If you are unsure, simply replace ‘it’s for ‘it is’. And if it doesn’t make sense, don’t include the apostrophe.

If we do that for the sentence that appeared on my television screen, it would have read:

“The Masterchef countdown is on. Don’t miss it is final days!”

Makes no sense right?

2. Plurals in abbreviations

This is one of my pet hates.

When we write about a Key Performance Indicator, a Stock Keeping Unit, or a Chief Executive Officer, we often write KPI, SKU and CEO. These are widely-known abbreviations – and if your audience is familiar with them, they’re perfectly fine.

But when we write about more than one KPI, SKU or CEO, many people include an apostrophe before the ‘s’.

That’s incorrect.

Never use an apostrophe to pluralise words.

If we were to write the abbreviation out in full, we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. So don’t be tempted to use one with the abbreviation either.

It’s:

  • KPIs not KPI’s
  • SKUs not SKU’s
  • CEOs not CEO’s

And one that may surprise you:

  • 1990s not 1990’s

But just to confuse things, you can include an apostrophe before the ‘s’ at the end of an abbreviation… if it’s used in a possessive context.

For example:

  • “The CEO’s door is always open….”
  • “The ALP’s campaign….”
  • “My PA’s contact details…”

So there it is. I hope this helps you untangle the apostrophe conundrum in your business writing.