For such a small symbol, the apostrophe sure does cause people a lot of trouble. Social media, signs and websites everywhere are littered with apostrophes that have no right to be where they are – generally lurking before the s at the end of a plural word. Historically, the worst perpetrators of this particular offence were greengrocers. We’ve all seen it. Apple’s – $3.99 per kg. Yes, we have banana’s. And so it came to pass that this error became known as a greengrocer’s apostrophe.

To be fair, there are quite a lot of rules surrounding the use of the apostrophe, so it’s not surprising that people get confused. I’ll break down the most common here. These should cover the majority of your apostrophe needs, so you can avoid joining the ranks of fruit stall sign writers everywhere.

Contractions: The first main use of the apostrophe is when you join two words together and miss one or more letters out in the process. The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.

Did not = didn’t
I have = I’ve
We will = we’ll
It is = it’s

This is a nice rule because it’s unambiguous. Missing letters? Pop an apostrophe in. This works when writing colloquial speech, too.

Have = ‘ave
Nothing = nothin’

Possessives: The second main use of the apostrophe is to show ownership. To indication possession, you place ‘s after the noun.

This is Brian’s bike = Brian owns the bike so an apostrophe goes before the s.

Here’s where it gets slightly more confusing because there are exceptions to this rule.

Possessive pronouns: A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun, like he, they and it. The possessive version doesn’t have an apostrophe.

He = his
They = theirs
It = its

This is Brian’s bike. Its bell is very loud. It’s rather annoying.

Possessive plural nouns: Confusion seems to abound over where to put the apostrophe when a possessive noun is also plural. In this instance, the apostrophe goes after the s.

I’m going to my parents’ house = I have two parents and they own the house. If you were to put the apostrophe before the s, then it would mean you had one parent whose house you were visiting.

The bees’ hive was enormous = there are lots of bees who have a huge hive. If you put the apostrophe before the s, then the whole hive would belong to one bee.

Possessive non-plural nouns ending in s: There’s no definitive rule here, and there are a couple of different style choices that are technically correct. Being consistent in your application is more important than which one you choose. I follow this rule of thumb, which seems to be most widely accepted:

If you say the es sound at the end of the word, then ‘s is appropriate.

That is James’s new bike.
Go to the boss’s office.
The bus’s door closed quickly.

If you don’t say the es at the end of the word, then just stick an apostrophe after it to make it possessive.

There was a gnome in Mr. Hastings’ garden.
Achilles’ heel was killing him.
Get off the lawn, for goodness’ sake.

There are more uses for the apostrophe, but the ones described above are the most common.

Do you have any questions about how to apply an apostrophe? If so, head on over to my Facebook and post them there.