20th May, 2011

It’s vs. Its: How to Use an Apostrophe

In property disputes, it is said that possession is nine-tenths of the law. In English grammar, however, possession is usually established by an apostrophe.

The companys profits last fiscal year exceeded expectations.

The models sparkling earrings complemented their shoes.

This versatile little punctuation mark also plays a vital role in shortening a word or pair of words, a tactic known as contraction.

We cant thank our clients enough.

Whos attending the event tonight?

A common mistake: while an apostrophe is always used when contracting it and is (It’s nice to see you), none is used in the possessive its (The plane slowed its descent).

And an observation: for written business English, it is considered more proper to avoid contractions – example, The Board is concerned… conveys a more appropriate tone than The Board’s concerned… – unless you intend to sound informal, as in a cheerful blog entry about grammar!

But here comes a thorny question: when is using an apostrophe not necessary? The two fuzzy instances we most encounter relate to pluralising, namely, widely accepted abbreviations and items ending in numbers.

He used to buy CDs in the 1990s.

Many CEOs own iPhone 4s.

Some insist on adding apostrophes when pluralising (They have four VP’s). We say adding them might be grammatically defensible, but doing so could be confusing if, as here, neither possession nor contraction is afoot. Handy as the apostrophe is, it may be clearest for your readers to use it only when necessary.

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