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Top Tip Tuesday- apostrophes can be tricky. Or is it apostrophe's can be tricky?

Apostrophes can be tricky. Sometimes they form possessives. Sometimes they form contractions. Can they ever make something plural?

Confusion around apostrophes means mistakes can often be spotted all around us in everyday situations. Have you ever heard of the grocer's apostrophe? Using an unnecessary apostrophe to form the plural of a noun is a very common mistake. Sometimes, it’s called the grocer’s apostrophe because of how frequently it is spotted in grocery store advertisements (3 orange’s for a pound!). Don’t do it! With very few exceptions, apostrophes do not make nouns plural.

The rules about forming possessives probably cause the most apostrophe confusion. They vary a little bit, depending on what type of noun you are making into a possessive. Here are the rules of thumb:

For most singular nouns, add apostrophe+s: The planet’s atmosphere

For most plural nouns, add only an apostrophe: The planets’ atmospheres (multiple planets)

For plural nouns that do not end in s, add apostrophe+s: The children’s toys

For singular proper noun that ends in s,

add an apostrophe: Charles Dickens’ novels or add apostrophe+s: Charles Dickens’s novels

Only the apostrophe to plural proper nouns that end in s: The Smiths’ holiday

A contraction is a shortened form of a word (or group of words) that omits certain letters or sounds. In a contraction, an apostrophe represents missing letters. Contractions are usually considered to be relatively casual. If you’re writing something very formal, you may want to avoid using them except in cases like o’clock, where the full phrase (of the clock) is rare. Some writers use less common contractions when they want to represent a particular style of speech. They might write somethin’ to represent the way people often don’t pronounce the final g of “something” in speech.

It gets a bit tricky when it comes to “its” and “it’s.” In this case, “its” shows possession, while “it’s” is a contraction of “it” and “is.” A clue to share with children is that when reading the sentence, if it makes sense to change “it’s” to “it is,” then they are dealing with a contraction. For example: “Look, it’s Tom!” or “The dog hurt its foot.” It makes perfect sense to say “It is Tom” but it doesn’t make sense to say “The dog hurt it is foot.”

To let children practice where an apostrophe is placed, write example phrases but omit the apostrophe and ask them to identify where it should be by placing the sticky note in the correct position. As an extra challenge they could also write or explain the 'rule' to justify their choices.

Struggling with where to put apostrophes? Try this placement activity.

Click to view video guides to support how to use possessive apostrophes and how they are used in contractions.

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