MEET THE APOSTROPHE: Abused, misused and confused

MEET THE APOSTROPHE: Abused, misused and confused

Poor grammar bugs many of us. And when it comes to writing at work, sloppy mistakes detract from your message and question your credibility. They can damage your employer’s brand as well as your personal brand.

Like it or not, people notice. And they judge.

And as a business writing trainer since 2008, trust me when I tell you that the apostrophe is the most misused, abused and confused punctuation mark of them all.

So read on to be sure you never get caught out again by this pesky piece of punctuation!

When TO use an apostrophe

1. As a contraction

We use contractions to make our writing more concise and conversational by combining two words to form one.

The apostrophe is simply there to show the reader that one or more letters are missing. Examples include:

  • We’ll (for we will)
  • Can’t (for cannot)
  • Won’t (for will not)
  • Would’ve (for would have)
  • Could’ve (for could have)
  • Wouldn’t (for would not)
  • It’s (for it is or it has)

2. Possessive use

Here, we use apostrophes to show when something or someone belongs to something or someone else. Examples include:

  • Sarah’s work
  • Australia’s population
  • Your partner’s mess

And if we’re talking about more than one of something, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’.

For example, if you have just one dog, you write: My dog’s treats. But if you have more than one dog (lucky you!), you write: My dogs’ treats.

When NOT to use an apostrophe

1. The word its

I was watching TV the other day when this sentence 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.

And here’s why: many people automatically include the apostrophe on the word it’s without thinking. Either that, or they simply don’t understand how to apply it correctly.

So here it is, a quick rule of thumb for you to live by:

Only include an apostrophe when it’s is a contraction for it is or it has. Never as a possessive. If you’re ever unsure, simply replace the it’s for it is or it has. And if neither makes sense, remove that rogue apostrophe.

Now, let’s look back at that sentence again.

If the apostrophe was needed, it would have read: The MasterChef countdown is on. Don’t miss it is final days! 

Makes no sense right? Okay then, what about this: The MasterChef countdown is on. Don’t miss it has final days! 

Nope. Still no good. And you know what the means, don’t you?

Kill that apostrophe!

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’.

And that’s incorrect (also irritating, if you ask me).

So never use an apostrophe to pluralise an abbreviation. And this one is super logical, you guys. If we were to write the abbreviation out in full, we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. So why would you use one with the abbreviation? That means it’s:

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

And one that may surprise you: It’s 1990s… not 1990’s.

Yup, the humble apostrophe has no place here!

Finally, just to confuse things a little more, 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 once and for all. Want to upskill your team in clear, concise and precise business writing? Get in touch.