Knowledge of Language


The apostrophe has two uses:

  • to show that a word has been shortened or abbreviated
  • to show the idea of ownership or belonging (possession).


To show that a word has been shortened, simply insert the apostrophe where the letters are missing:

  • can’t for cannot
  • could’ve for could have
  • it’s for it is.

Note: these kinds of abbreviation should really only be used in writing when you are using direct speech, words actually said by someone.

Ownership, belonging, possession

Horrible but true – and wrong! 

A brightly lit neon sign at a holiday camp: Telephone’s X

Sign in shop: Turnip’s for sale X

And worst of all...

Robert Burn’s X

The problem is the s, isn’t it? See an s and hit it with an apostrophe. Please don’t!

What’s the answer?

If all you want to do is show that there is more than one thing (a plural) just add an s, not an apostrophe.

One turnip                   Two turnips

One telephone             Three telephones

Apostrophes are only used when there is an s that shows something belongs to someone.

Where to put apostrophes

Singular and plural words

Many people know vaguely that the apostrophe goes after the s for a plural (more than one) but then wonder about unusual plural words like children or men which do not have an s.

A simple trick for all apostrophes (singular and plural words)

  • Don’t think about singular and plural.
  • To find out where the apostrophe goes turn the sentence or relevant part of the sentence around in your head.
  • The trick is to note the last letter of the last word of the turned-round sentence and put the apostrophe after it.
Example 1:

The girls top was red (note it says 'was' so there is only one top and one girl in it.) 

Turned round: The top belonging to the girl.

The trick: the last letter of the last word is l – so put the apostrophe after the l.

The answer: The girl’s top was red.

Example 2:

The two girls tops were red.

Turned round: The tops belonging to the two girls.

The trick: the last letter of the last word is s – so put the apostrophe after the s.

The answer: The two girls’ tops were red.

Example 3:

I collected the childrens books.

Turned round: I collected the books belonging to the children.

The trick: the last letter of the last word is n – so put the apostrophe after the n.

The answer: I collected the children’s books.

Names and adjectives

What about names which end in s? Do you add another s?

The good news is that it is acceptable to write names either way. One syllable names sound better without the extra s

Burns’ poetry

The poetry belonging to Burns. It needs an apostrophe because it’s not just his name.

Two syllable words can take an extra s or not:

Silas’ book or Silas’s book.

Another oddity – adjectives that end in s

Some words end in s and might look as if they should have an apostrophe, but actually they are being used as an adjective to describe something.

For example:

Burns Supper

The supper doesn’t belong to Burns so it does not need an apostrophe. The word Burns describes what sort of supper it is. This makes it different from Burns’ poetry because the poetry does belong to Burns.


It’s and its

Sometimes its has an apostrophe and sometimes it doesn’t.

When it’s is short for it is, there is an apostrophe.

It’s a cold day.

When its is used for ownership, belonging or possession, there is no apostrophe – so it breaks all the rules you have just learned!

The cat licked its paws. 



Who's and whose

This is similar to it's and its.

Who's is short for who is, so there is an apostrophe to replace the missing letter.

Who’s going to the match?

Whose is used for ownership. There is no apostrophe.

Whose book is this?

They're, their and there

They're is short for 'They are'.

They’re going to secondary school in August.

Their means that someone owns something.

Their uniforms are ready for them.

There is a place. Think of here and there to remember the spelling. There is also used before parts of the verb 'to be', eg it is used before 'is', 'are', 'was', 'were', 'will be'.

When they go to France, I hope they enjoy their time there.

There were ten candles on the cake.

There is going to be a storm.


You're and your

You're is short for 'You are'.

You're going to be rich now that you’ve won the lottery.

You're only sixteen. There's plenty of time to decide what career you want to follow.

Your means that someone owns something.

Give me your hand and I'll tell your fortune.

Your birthday is on the 5th of November, isn't it?