We Need to Talk About Apostrophes

Sunday 2nd April 2017


There may be bigger and more serious public relations disasters that could threaten the reputation of your business, but few things erode more credibility over time than consistent grammatical errors in your communications.

And the day that everybody seemed to skip at school was the one when apostrophes were explained. The number of highly intelligent, highly educated individuals who make homophone (words that sound the same but are spelt differently, and have different meanings) or apostrophe errors is staggering. We all do it from time to time; that’s why proofreading or the eagle eye of an editor is so important. John Steinbeck was well known for not letting correct punctuation get in the way of a good story, and he won a Nobel Prize for literature. As for Jack Kerouac? He threw the rulebook out of the window, leaving his editors to pick up the pieces and turn his famous toilet roll manuscript into something they could publish. It doesn’t matter whether it’s copy on a website, text in a blog post, or a social media caption though; when it’s your brand, it all matters.

letter tiles showing the homonyms there, their, they're

The problem is often down to homophones. “Your” and “you’re” sound the same, but the difference is best summed up by the following popular catchphrase:

letter tiles spelling out the phrase "knowing your shit and knowing you're shit"

There’s a difference.

Here’s a brief low down: an apostrophe is used to show either possession, or omission (creating a contraction). If you place an apostrophe between a noun and an s, then it indicates that the following noun belongs to that someone or something. If there is no apostrophe then the s indicates that there is more than one.

letter tiles showing correct use of apostrophes

When apostrophes are used to show an omission, they replace a letter (or several), most often when two words are contracted: You are becomes you’re, I am becomes I’m, have not becomes haven’t etc…

letter tiles showing how apostrophes are used to contract two words

Its/it’s is a common source of confusion though, as it is one of the exceptions to the apostrophe rule. Its means “belonging to it”, whereas it’s (with an apostrophe is short for “it is” or “it has”.

letter tiles showing the words its and it's to illustrate use of apostrophes

Homonyms and homophones are slippery customers; they sound the same and they aren’t a spelling mistake, strictly speaking, but more a case of the wrong word being used. If you rely on the red squiggly line appearing under words as you type to alert you to a spelling error, then homophones will slip through the net. Where (location) and wear (clothes), whether (choice) and weather (sun or rain), or the classic there/their/they’re. Be aware and keep your wits about you when you proof read before hitting the publish button, because the squiggly red line won’t come to your rescue on these ones.

Despite all of this though, even the best still make the occasional slip up with the likes of its and it’s. Be alert and do your best to avoid the common traps, but don’t beat yourself up if you notice an error after your words have gone live. At least, as long as you don’t do it every week.