How to use apostrophes correctly

A woman writing in a book, using apostrophes correctly.
Photo by Gift Habeshaw

Using apostrophes correctly is an easy way to gain more marks in GCSE English exam writing. So, with a little bit of clear thinking, apostrophes can be used correctly every single time. Then sit back and watch those marks roll in.

1. Apostrophes of Contraction

The most common form of apostrophe is the apostrophe of contraction. Contraction means the ‘shortening’ of something so when we push two or more words together and ‘shorten’ them, we need an apostrophe.

Here are some examples:

  • I am -> I’m
  • You are -> You’re
  • It is -> It’s
  • We are -> We’re
  • They are -> They’re
  • Do not -> Don’t
  • Would have -> Would’ve
  • Will not -> Won’t
  • It is ten of the clock -> It’s ten o’clock

Students often forget to write these apostrophes and in informal writing they are often ignored. However, in your exam you are expected to be writing in good Standard English. So get into the habit of placing apostrophes and watch those marks improve.

2. Apostrophes of Possession/Ownership

Possession/ownership of something by something else is usually indicated with an apostrophe. To become expert in using the apostrophe of possession, you need to be able also to identify if you are using a singular or a plural.

Here are some examples showing a person owning a physical thing:

  • The woman’s bike
  • Efan’s football
  • Sonia’s suitcase
  • The man’s gloves

Here are some examples showing how possession can also mean owning a non-physical concept:

  • Ireland’s success
  • Efan’s scoring record
  • Sonia’s ambition
  • The man’s uncertainty

Here are some examples showing how to use an apostrophe when a word already ends with an s:

  • The dogs’ noses
  • The societies’ presidents
  • James’ boat
  • The beaches’ erosion

In some circumstances, you may prefer to avoid using an apostrophe by inverting the statement. The “erosion of the beaches” sounds better than “the beaches’ erosion.”

3. Homophones and near homophones

It’s/its, you’re/your, they’re/their/there sound exactly alike but mean very different things, therefore they are homophones. Like all homophones, you need to know exactly which one you are using before choosing the spelling

We’re/were/where are not homophones. They sound different but are commonly confused. Again, know exactly which one you are using before choosing a spelling.

It’s and its

“It’s” means “it is.”

“Its” is the possessive form and, unusually, does not need an apostrophe. This allows it to be told apart from “it’s.”

  • It’s a sunny day.
  • The dog is not happy with its new toy.
  • It’s going to be fun.
  • The company had to close its Norwich office.

You’re and your

“You’re” means “you are.”

“Your” indicates possession of something by “you.”

  • You’re happy.
  • Your bike is amazing.
  • You’re not allowed to go.
  • Your ambition is driving you to greatness.

They’re, their and there

“They’re” means “they are.” “Their” indicates possession of something by “them.” “There” indicates location and is also used n the very common phrase “there is/there are.” More in-depth information on these tricky words is available here.

  • They’re happy.
  • Their shoes have gone missing.
  • The sea is over there.
  • They’re not going to believe this.
  • Their wedding was a lovely occasion.
  • There are two cathedrals in Norwich.

We’re, were and where

“We’re” means “we are.” “Were” is part of the past tense of the verb “be.” “Where” is a question word for when you need to know where something is.

  • We’re happy.
  • They were on their way.
  • Where is Norwich?
  • We’re going to get excellent grades.
  • We were in Dublin last week.
  • Where is my bike?

4. Are apostrophes dying out?

Students are often frustrated by apostrophes and wonder what the point of them is – and would love to avoid using them altogether. Students also notice that apostrophes are often ignored. So are they dying out?

The short answer is that, yes, apostrophes probably are dying out. However, it is very unlikely that they will disappear in time for your GCSE exam. Maybe in a few centuries time we will look back on apostrophes and wonder what all the fuss was about. But, for now, apostrophes must be part of your writing.

All major publishing and media companies use apostrophes and therefore, they are a part of Standard English. So, learn to use them correctly and even begin using them in your informal uses of language to help you form the habit.

5. In conclusion

Learn to use apostrophes – get higher marks. It’s as simple as that.

Missing apostrophes can be seen a mile off – even before the examiner has fully read your answer. So offer a good first impression to your examiner by showing you can use apostrophes correctly.

Published by Edward Mooney

I am a highly qualified and experienced English tutor based in the UK. I founded this site in 2019 to help students of GCSE English learn how to reach their full potential.

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