Common mistakes: apostrophe use

Apostrophe use differs depending on the language. In Dutch, for example, apostrophes are used for plurals: taxi’s, baby’s, pizza’s. But in English, the apostrophes in these words would indicate possession: the taxi’s light, the baby’s blanket, the pizza’s toppings.

Misused apostrophes can make your writing look sloppy – something you definitely don’t want it to seem in an academic paper. But worse, they can confuse readers and even change the meaning of a sentence.

There are a few common misuses (and abuses) of apostrophes to look out for. Keep these in mind and the manuscript you submit will be all the better for it.

Plurals

In English, you never need to use an apostrophe to make a word plural. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have seen plenty of it around – this common mistake is called the grocer’s apostrophe (as you can often find signs at the grocery store advertising apple’s, banana’s and pear’s).

This rule seems simple enough, but there are a couple of things that might trip you up: in English, you also don’t need to use an apostrophe with numbers or abbreviated words. So it’s CDs (not CD’s) and 1980s (not 1980’s). If in doubt, leave it out – and check with a professional.

Possession

You don’t need apostrophes for plurals, but you do need them to show possession:

  • The task of the assistant → the assistant’s task
  • The color of the liquid → the liquid’s color
  • The active site of the molecule → the molecule’s active site

Positioning is important too – if you want to show possession of something plural, the apostrophe goes after the s (i.e. you don’t need an extra ‘s’ at the end):

  • Plants’ growth
  • Cats’ behavior
  • Components’ cost

Contraction

Apostrophes can also be used to take the place of missing letters when you shorten a word or phrase. Think about commonly used negatives – in these cases, the ‘o’ in ‘not’ is replaced with an apostrophe:

  • Do not → don’t
  • Cannot → can’t
  • Is not → isn’t

In an academic article, you’re (you are) unlikely to use contractions, as they make a piece of writing somewhat less formal. But it’s (it is) important to understand how they’re (they are) used in this case.

Its/it’s

Now we get to the most common mistake of all: its vs. it’s. This one’s very simple:

  • Its = the thing belonging to it
  • It’s = it is

It’s is a contraction (the apostrophe stands in for the missing ‘i’) so it adheres to the rule. The one to remember is ‘its’: in this case, you don’t need an apostrophe to show possession.

Remember these four rules and your next academic article will be free of apostrophe misuse. And if you want to be sure your grammar is up to scratch, you can send your manuscript for editing before you submit.