MEET THE APOSTOPHE: Abused, misused & confused  

Poor grammar bugs many of us. And when it comes to writing at work, sloppy mistakes detract from your message and question your credibility. They can damage your employer’s brand – as well as your personal brand.

Like it or not, people notice. And they judge.

And as a business writing trainer since 2008, trust me when I tell you that the apostrophe is the most misused, abused and confused punctuation mark of them all.

So read on to be sure you never get caught out again by this pesky piece of punctuation!

Apostrophes have two main uses

The first main use of the apostrophe is to indicate missing letters in a contraction – where two words are combined to form one. 

We use contractions to make our writing more concise and conversational. Examples include:

  • We’ll (for we will)
  • Can’t (for cannot)
  • Won’t (for will not)
  • Would’ve (for would have)
  • Could’ve (for could have)
  • Wouldn’t (for would not)
  • It’s (for it is or it has)

The second main use of the apostrophe is to show when something or someone belongs to something or someone else. This is referred to as the possessive use.  Examples include:

  • Sarah’s work
  • Australia’s population
  • Your partner’s mess

And if we’re talking about more than one of something, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’.

For example, if you have just one dog, you write: My dog’s treats. But if you have more than one dog (lucky you!), you write: My dogs’ treats.

When NOT to use apostrophes

I see the apostrophe incorrectly applied in two common scenarios.

The first is with the word ITS.

But there’s a catch. Around half the time, the apostrophe should be there. But many people include it all the time, regardless of the context. 

Take this sentence: It’s time to give the dog its food.

As you can see, I did not add an apostrophe here. And that’s because you should only include an apostrophe when ‘it’s’ is a contraction for it is or it has. Never as a possessive. 

So, if you’re ever unsure, simply replace the it’s for it is or it has. And if neither makes sense, 

The second common scenario for incorrectly adding an apostrophe is in abbreviations. 

For example, when we write about a Key Performance Indicator, a Stock Keeping Unit, or a Chief Executive Officer, we often write KPI, SKU and CEO.  

But when we write about more than one KPI, SKU or CEO, many people include an apostrophe before the ‘s’.

And that’s incorrect.

So never use an apostrophe to pluralise an abbreviation. And this one is super logical, you guys. If we were to write the abbreviation out in full, we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. So why would you use one with the abbreviation? 

That means it’s:

  • KPIs not KPI’s
  • SKUs not SKU’s
  • CEOs not CEO’s

And one that may surprise you: It’s the 1990s not the 1990’s.

Yup, the humble apostrophe has no place here!

Finally, just to confuse things a little more, you can include an apostrophe before the ‘s’ at the end of an abbreviation… if it’s used in a possessive context. For example:

  • The CEO’s door is always open
  • The ALP’s campaign
  • My PA’s contact details

So there it is. I hope this helps you untangle the apostrophe conundrum once and for all. Want to upskill your team in clear, concise and precise business writing? Get in touch.