Long ago in my laborious and unremarkable teaching career, I had a lovely colleague called Helen who had a creative idea for teaching apostrophes. She invented a character called “Agatha Apostrophe”, who suffered deeply when people misused these tricky little punctuation marks. Since apostrophes are one of the nightmares of English usage, Agatha experienced a great deal of fastidious pain. She was just that kind of woman.
Not to be outdone, I borrowed Helen’s idea and created a character of my own. I called her Mrs Humpty.
Perhaps I invented Mrs Humpty so that there would be someone older than I am in the school. In any case, she was always saying “Humph!” whenever anyone used an apostrophe in the wrong place. She liked respectful students, carefully placed semicolons and bracing cups of tea (brewed in a proper teapot). In addition to being older, she was plumper and more pedantic than I am. Hard to believe that anyone could tick all those boxes, huh?
Sometimes I worry that I’m morphing into my own character. After you’ve worked through all the advice and admonitions in this post, you’ll think so too.
Warmest regards from
Here are Mrs Humpty’s rules for apostrophe use. Read them carefully or risk her pained displeasure:
1 Letters that are missing are replaced with an apostrophe.
- You’re silly.
- They’re coming to the party.
2 Show possession by placing an apostrophe before the “s” when a single owner possesses something.
- The woman’s cries were heart-rending.
- The puppy’s toy was quickly torn apart.
3 When the owner is a plural noun and the word is a regular plural, the apostrophe is placed after the “s”.
- My two brothers’ rooms are a dreadful mess.
- All the ladies’ dresses sparkled in the bright lights.
4 Irregular plurals like “men”, “women”, “sheep” and “children” require you to place the apostrophe before the “s”.
Irregular plurals are those that have no “s” at the end, but rather a change within the form of the word itself. Sometimes the word does not change at all, but is still a plural, as in the case of “sheep”.
- The men’s fascination with fishing is surprising.
- The children’s music was deafening.
5 Possessive pronouns like hers, his, their, theirs and its do NOT require an apostrophe.
Problem Word: The word “its” is possessive, but it requires no apostrophe. The word “it’s” always means “it is” or “it has”.
6 Plurals that don’t possess anything require no apostrophe.
Plural nouns only require an apostrophe when they own something, as in the sentence: “The boys’ football gear stank to high heaven.”
- Handout: Placing that Dratted Apostrophe
- Download if desired: PDF with Answers to “Placing that Dratted Apostrophe”
- Interactive Quiz:
Vocabulary in this Post
- admonition – the act of providing authoritative counsel, of urging someone in a rather pushy way to behave as you wish; a warning or reproof
- alter ego – other self, alternative personality
- bracing – of something that strengthens, freshens and invigorates you
- fastidious – attentive to and concerned about detail and accuracy, squeamish or overly scrupulous
- pedantic – showing excessive knowledge of or concern with precise technical or academic knowledge, adhering strictly to formal rules or literal meanings