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In fact the apostrophe is, like the vast majority of punctuation, essential to reader comprehension - if you want people to understand what you're going on about, you need to know how to use these properly.
The vast majority of people will only ever be required to use the apostrophe in one of two ways:
1. Contractions: A contraction occurs when two words merge to form one, and are typically used in written dialogue and informal writing. For example:
- 'Who is' becomes 'Who's'
- 'There is' becomes 'There's'
- 'Had not' becomes 'Hadn't'
- 'It is becomes It's'
- 'Do not' becomes 'Don't'
- 'You are' becomes 'You're'
- 'Would have' becomes 'Would've' (not 'Would of')
- 'Could have becomes 'Could've' (not 'Could of')
The apostrophe is used to show where letters have been removed.
2. Possessives: You'll also need to use apostrophes to denote possession. The most common example of the use of apostrophes to demonstrate possession is in business and shop names, for instance 'Jim's Butter Shop', 'Crawley's Apothecary', 'Mindy's Olde Sweet Shop'.
The names at the beginning of each of these shop names are examples of singular nouns - if a singular noun possesses something, an apostrophe is used to demonstrate that possession. If the singular noun ends in 's', simply include a lone apostrophe after that 's' to show possession, for instance 'James' Big Wheel'.
You may also see this from time to time, 'James's Big Wheel', but don't panic, it's simply a matter of preference; grammatically, either is correct. Just make sure that, whichever you decide to use, you are consistent.
If you need to demonstrate that a plural noun possesses something, for example children or women, simply add 's, e.g. 'The children's books were ruined', 'The women's group met for the first time.'
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE: two common exceptions to the above rules spring to mind, 'its' and 'whose'. Because it's is a contraction of it is, an apostrophe is not used to denote possession when using its, e.g. 'The cat was sick. Its paws had turned green.' Same goes for who's and whose, who's is the contraction, whose is the possessive
And that's pretty much it! Incorrect use of apostrophes can drastically alter the meaning of a sentence, for example 'The jockey's meal had gone cold' or 'The jockeys' meal had gone cold' - where the first is a meal for just one jockey, the second is a meal for many jockeys (perhaps a buffet).
Mastering the apostrophe (it's not that hard) will improve your writing no end - no one likes an incorrectly used apostrophe, particularly not snooty grammar types like me. Test your apostrophe skills here.