Table of Contents
Here’s our comprehensive guide to apostrophes that you will hopefully find useful and even funny (see the examples of misuse)!
Types of Apostrophe
One of the reasons people get confused about apostrophes is that they serve four different purposes:
- To indicate an omission, such as to show a contraction from “can not” to “can’t”
- To indicate possession to show ownership “the boy’s toys”
- To mark plurals of individual characters such as “p’s and q’s”. This isn’t in the primary curriculum, so we’ll largely ignore it, but it’s good to be prepared for those student questions
- To indicate in some none English native names a missing character such as O’Doole. Again this isn’t in the primary curriculum so we’ll largely ignore it.
The word apostrophe comes ultimately from Greek apóstrophos, which means to turn away (in disgust)…..we’re not sure why either.
Apostrophes in the National Curriculum
Below is a comprehensive list of where apostrophes are mentioned in the national curriculum. As you will see only those indicating possession or omission are mentioned.
Reading: read words with contractions, for example, I’m, I’ll, we’ll, and understand that the apostrophe represents the omitted letter(s)
Writing: Transcription – Spell by learning the possessive apostrophe (singular), for example, the girl’s book
Writing: vocabulary, grammar and punctuation – learning how to use both familiar and new punctuation correctly [including] … apostrophes for contracted forms and the possessive (singular).
English Appendix 2: Apostrophes to mark where letters are missing in spelling and to mark singular possession in nouns, for example, the girl’s name
Years 3 and 4
Writing: Transcription – place the possessive apostrophe accurately in words with regular plurals, for example, girls’, boys’, and in words with irregular plurals, for example children’s.
Writing: vocabulary, grammar and punctuation – indicating possession by using the possessive apostrophe with plural nounEnglish Appendix 2: Apostrophes to mark plural possession, for example, the girl’s name, the girls’ names
Apostrophes for the Contracted Form
Apostrophe showing omission, referred as “apostrophes for the contracted form” in the National Curriculum, do what they say on the tin.
They indicate that something has been omitted and this omission is indicated by the apostrophe.
A contraction is the shortened form of a word or words that omits certain letters (or sounds – not listed in the grammar curriculum but great in creative writing for speech).
Some writers use contractions when they want to represent missing sounds such as in a particular style of speech. They might write somethin’ to represent the way people often don’t pronounce the final g.
In my experience, the rules about possessive apostrophes cause the most confusion. Below are the two main rules:
- For nouns not ending in s, add an apostrophe and then an s. The teacher’s book. The well-behaved student’s attitude.
- For nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe. The teachers’ books. The students’ classroom. It’s not wrong to add an s as well, but it’s not required.
- This one never comes to mind and rarely appears but nonetheless it is a rule. Possessive pronouns do not use an apostrophe. So never her’s, his’, it’s or your’s.
Apostrophes, Singular Nouns and Plurals Nouns
Because the national curriculum splits up possessive apostrophes for singular nouns (in Year 2) and possessive apostrophes for plural nouns some teachers approach these separately.
However, the rules work exactly the same for singular nouns and plural nouns. The important bit is: do they end in an s?
Here is a list of irregular plural nouns not ending in an s, to help you create questions and examples in class:
dice (when used as the plural of die)
pence (a plural of penny)
One area I never felt particularly confident about is when there is more than one owner (and it doesn’t seem to be in the national curriculum). For example, Helen and Glen’s house or is it Helen’s and Glen’s house?
The style guides I have read tend to indicate the better use of apostrophes is:
When one thing belongs to two or more people, make only the final name possessive: Helen and Glen’s house
When multiple things belong to different people, make all the names possessive: David’s and Mark’s pens – David and Mark each own a pen.
Apostrophes with Other Punctuation
An apostrophe forms part of the word, so it should never be separated from its word by full stops, commas, speech marks, or any other punctuation.
Formal and Informal Use of Apostrophes
Historically contractions were a casual form of expression. As such, they were not used in formal documents such as legal letters or contracts.
Nowadays apostrophes are used in newspapers and letters more and more. However, their lack of use by students in a newspaper report might indicate they are working at a greater depth.
Apostrophes in the Classroom
Teaching methods always vary teacher to teacher and school to school.
Some teachers may spend a whole lesson focused on apostrophes with examples and discussions, while others may spend 5 or 10 minutes at the start of each lesson discussing different aspects of punctuation depending on class reading or work produced.
Methods for teaching apostrophes may include the following:
- Using Grammar with Emile
- Asking children to add apostrophes in the correct place
- Playing games such as:
- Matching cards, for example ‘I am’ with ‘I’m’.
- A teacher may dictate words or sentences to children containing apostrophes.
- Classroom displays
- children are given an action (karate kick!) to go with a type of punctuation.
Examples of Apostrophes Used Incorrectly:
There are many examples of incorrectly used apostrophes and these can be great to form a lesson around.
The issue usually comes from the identical sound of the plural and possessive forms of most English nouns.
Apostrophes used incorrectly in this way are known as greengrocers’ apostrophes. (Or is that greengrocer’s apostrophes?)
My favourite example at the moment is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s letter to EU President Donald Tusk regarding Brexit . He wrote, “this continent our people’s share”
Below are a few more examples that you can use in class to discuss apostrophes.