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Style Manual

Apostrophes

Apostrophes to show possession and contractions. Don’t use them for descriptive phrases or plural nouns.

Apostrophes show possession

To correctly show possession by using an apostrophe, first ask, ‘Who or what is doing the owning?’

The apostrophe goes straight after the answer.

Example

This is Ariahs desk.

This is the Murphys submission to the inquiry. [More than one person called Murphy were part of a joint submission.]

There are possession rules for using an apostrophe, according to the type of noun.

Noun possession rules

Noun type Rule Examples
Singular noun Add an apostrophe and s the committees report,
ASIOs files
Plural nouns that end in letter ‘s’ Add an apostrophe both committees reports,
the Joneses submission
Plural nouns that don’t end in letter ‘s’ Add an apostrophe and s childrens education,
the sheeps wool
Proper names ending in letter ‘s’ Add an apostrophe and another s, even if you don’t pronounce the final s in the noun Burnss report,
Jamess profession,
Rosss job,
Louiss supervisor
More than one noun: individual possession Add an apostrophe after each noun Smiths and Millers offices
More than one noun: joint possession Add an apostrophe after the last noun only Smith and Millers report
Singular compound noun Add an apostrophe after the compound The Attorney-Generals office
Plural compound noun Add an apostrophe after the compound The Attorneys-Generals meeting

Possessive pronouns (determiners)

You don’t need an apostrophe with possessive pronouns. Although the term ‘possessive pronoun’ is commonly used, these types of words are no longer classed as pronouns. They are determiners.

Example

This is your office. That is theirs.

The fault is ours.

Put the report in its place.

Australian place names

Don’t use an apostrophe for Australian place names involving possessives.

Example

Kings Cross

Mrs Macquaries Chair

Descriptive phrases don’t need apostrophes

Some nouns are descriptive rather than possessive. Don’t use an apostrophe for these nouns.

Example

workers compensation [A type of compensation for workers]

visitors book [A book used by visitors]

Use the apostrophe to show possession.

Example

They signed the visitors book. [Descriptive: a type of book]

She attended a directors meeting. [Descriptive: a type of meeting for directors]

Her visitors book was lying on the table. [Possessive: the book her visitor owns]

The directors office was refurbished. [Possessive: the office where the director works]

Noun phrases about time don’t need apostrophes because they’re descriptive, not possessive.

Example

6 weeks time

3 months wages

When the time reference is in the singular, use an apostrophe to show the noun is singular.

Example

a days work

the years cycle

Apostrophes show contractions

Apostrophes show that you have omitted letters in contractions.

Example

I havent seen the report.

Its a busy day at the office.

Don’t confuse ‘it’s’ (the contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’) with ‘its’ (to show that ‘it’ owns something).

If you can divide ‘it’s’ into ‘it is’ or ‘it has’, then you need to use an apostrophe. ‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun and doesn’t have an apostrophe.

Example

It’s time to give the committee its terms of reference.

Plural nouns don’t have apostrophes

No apostrophe is needed for the plural form of a noun. This type of error is known as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’.

Correct

the 2020s

committee reports

newer 747s

fresh avocados

Incorrect

the 2020s

committee reports

newer 747s

fresh avocados

Single letter and digit plurals

There are exceptions to the rule of not using an apostrophe for the plural form of a noun.

Use an apostrophe for plurals of single letters and single-digit numbers. These have an apostrophe before the ‘s’.

Example

Binary code uses 0s and 1s.

Dot your is and cross your ts when you edit the report.

Plurals that are not usually nouns

Apostrophes show plurals of words that are not usually nouns.

Example

He was a good speaker. He never used ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ when addressing his staff.

Don’t use ‘likes’ and ‘you knows’ when speaking to your manager.

Apostrophes can stand in for sounds

Apostrophes show sounds in words from other languages.

Example

She was reading the Quran.

Geez is an ancient language from Ethiopia.

Some official names have apostrophes

Use the apostrophe only when it forms part of the official name of an organisation.

Example

National Farmers’ Federation

Australian Workers Union

Release notes

The digital edition consolidates information about apostrophes and provides illustrative examples to help users understand correct use.

The sixth edition had information about apostrophes in several sections. 

The Content Guide had brief advice about using apostrophes.

About this page

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: editing and proofreading for the workplace, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edition, Lacuna, 2014.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford Paperback Reference.

Stilman S (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, 2004; revised and updated, 2010.

Strunk W and White EB (2000) The elements of style, 4th edn, Longman, New York.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London, 2003.

University of Chicago (2017) ‘6.115: ‘‘smart’’ apostrophes’, Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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