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English Punctuation Mark: The 'Apostrophe'

Updated: Nov 24

Keys on a laptop keyboard - the apostrophe.

Introduction - Learn this English Punctuation Mark

Yes, this article is all about the comma-like punctuation mark between the T and the S in the title.

When I taught English in China, my students told me they’d never been taught the name of it. I don’t know why!

So, I taught them. No more would they spell a word with an apostrophe like this: “J-O-H-N unnn S” - while drawing an imaginary comma in the air to indicate the apostrophe.

So, what is this punctuation mark?

It’s an apostrophe of course, and I’ve used a few already. (pronounced “a/uh+pos+trof+ee” or even: /əˈpɒstrəfi/.

The plural (apostrophes) is /əˈpɒstrəfiz/

I’ve seen some writers use this: it,s

It could have been a typo but it’s clearly wrong!

And many sign-writers use them incorrectly. For example, someone with many books to sell will write: BOOK’s FOR SALE, instead of merely using the plural of book: books.

When will they ever learn?

Here’s another one.

“What’s that noise?

It’s just the dog drinking its water!”

“Isn’t that the cat’s water bowl?”

Note the difference there.

Remember this to help you know the difference: "It's 'its' not 'it's'."

So then, what’s an apostrophe for and what does it mean?

Three ways in which apostrophes are used

There are three ways in which apostrophes are used. Some have already been pointed out, above.

1 to show that a letter or letters are missing

For example: it’s omits the word ‘is’. It is wrong = It’s wrong.

Don’t omits the word not. Do not = don’t.

2 to mean belonging to; that is, to form possessive nouns.

The dog that belongs to John is John’s dog.

Italy’s capital is Rome.

The student’s book is in her bag.

The students’ books are in their bags.

The rule there is that if the noun is singular (student) the apostrophe is before the S, and if the noun is plural (students) it is “S - apostrophe”.


But what about Thomas? Or James? And what about hippopotamus? Nouns or names that end with an S simply take the apostrophe at the end. So, it would be Thomas’ book.

However, when we say it, we say “Thomas’s book” which is why some people say that both are correct.

3 The final use of an apostrophe is to indicate the plurals of letters, numbers, and symbols.

How many A’s are there in this sentence?

Tom achieved seven 6’s in his semester results.

There are two 😉’s in his comment.

Other uses of the apostrophe

Other uses of the apostrophe; the apostrophe when it’s not used as an apostrophe.

The apostrophe also acts as a single quotation mark (an inverted/upside down comma) or double quotation marks (double inverted commas).

For example:

This is the ‘right’ way to do it.

Here, ‘right’ is in single quotation marks because there may be another ‘right’ way to do something when that ‘something’ is in doubt.

And this:

“Come here, right now!” the teacher shouted.

This indicates spoken words.

In academic essays, double inverted commas (double quotation marks) are used for direct quotes, that is, when an author’s words are used.

For example:

Smith (1999:65) states that “it is impossible to do it like that” and goes on to explain how he would do it.

You may have seen people saying something like this: “He says he’s a ‘big’ boy now, but he’s only four years old!” – and the speaker will hold up two hands in the air and waggle two fingers on each hand to indicate the quotation marks.

Or a speaker will quote someone and after saying the quote, will say “quote, unquote” to indicate that she has finished quoting the person.

Ah! The difficulties associated with speaking written punctuation and the ways in which we overcome them!


So, there you have it, another tip for improving your English using this important English punctuation mark. Please be sure to use the apostrophe correctly.

And if you want to learn about other punctuation marks, I have written other articles here.

Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it on your socials with your friends. It's easy: just copy the URL and post.

(c) Apex English Tutoring Dec 2020 - Updated Nov 2023

Man in long-sleeved striped shirt talking on mobile phone

About the Author

Michael Finemore, an experienced English Teacher, is the Owner-Operator of Apex English Tutoring.

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