Three students looking at a whiteboard, which says 'The dog chased its ball'. Student says: "So its is possessive, except when it comes to apostrophes?"

As punctuation marks go, the apostrophe is a pretty small deal. A tiny little (’) indication after or between letters to denote abbreviation or possession. You’d think it was hardly noticeable. But you’d be wrong.

The apostrophe is so important if you want your meaning to be clear and to create a good impression from your writing. Get it right and everything looks smooth and accomplished; leave one out when it’s needed and the error sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Exactly like accurate spelling and good grammar, it’s so important to get your apostrophes correct particularly when corresponding in a business arena. Clear writing and accurate punctuation says so much about you, so better make sure that you put that apostrophe in its place.

“Not that important these days” you say? Wrong. Like it or not everyone including you will be judged on the clarity and accuracy of your writing, punctuation and grammar.

When is it used?

There are two main uses for an apostrophe, and both are employed quite commonly. First, it can be used as a contraction: that is to squeeze two words into one using the apostrophe to glue it all together. Common uses include I’m (I am), you’re (you are) and won’t (will not). It’s a more informal way of writing and probably wouldn’t be seen in most legal or important documents.

Second, the apostrophe can be used in a possessive context, before the letter s, to indicate ownership of something. The man’s hat is an example of this, or Sophie’s car.

But it doesn’t stop there. If the owner of something is two or more, such as a group, the apostrophe goes after the s. So, my sisters’ dresses is correct punctuation if you have two sisters, as is the vicars’ sermons if more than one vicar is preaching.

Its or it’s?

And here’s another rule to look out for. When using the word ‘it’ in the possessive context, just leave the apostrophe out altogether. The horse took its first steps shows the steps belonged to the horse when it first walked as a pony, but there’s not an apostrophe in sight.

As for names that end in an ‘s’, it’s usually best to stick with what looks and feels right, so you’ll have James’s house and Francis’s yacht, but then there’s Dickens’ novel. Unlike the great Charles, you just couldn’t make it up but, don’t give up and ignore. Apostrophes can be a deal breaker if your business plan uses them incorrectly and your recipient is a stickler for proper punctuation.

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