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How Do I Use Apostrophes
in My Novel?

The use of apostrophes is an area where many fiction writers run into difficulties – finding themselves unsure about whether an apostrophe is needed and, if so, where it goes.

It’s important to get it right as apostrophe errors can distort meaning and distract readers. This section will run through the rules regarding apostrophes to help you tackle them with confidence.


What is the correct shape for an apostrophe?

An important point to make at the outset concerns the shape of an apostrophe. While apostrophes can be used for different purposes, their shape remains the same: that of a closing quotation mark (’).


When should I use apostrophes in a novel?

There are two main uses for apostrophes:

  1. To indicate possession

  2. To indicate omission


Using an apostrophe to show possession

An apostrophe is used to indicate ownership of someone or something.

If the noun is singular, the plural is usually formed by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s’:

Jane’s car

Britain’s film industry

The cat’s whiskers

If the owner is plural, possession is indicated by adding an ‘s’ and an apostrophe to the noun.

For example:


The boys’ parents

if there is more than one boy.



The boy’s parents

if there is just one boy.


The pupils’ new teacher

means we are referring to more than one pupil.



Certain nouns become plural in an irregular way.

For example:


Child becomes children

Man becomes men

Woman becomes women


We indicate possession by putting an apostrophe and an ‘s’ after the plural form.

For example: 

The children’s new teacher

The men’s 400 metres relay race

The women’s marathon


It and It’s

This is an area where it’s easy to make a mistake.

Many authors think it is correct to say:


The dog chased it’s own tail

This is INCORRECT. It should be written:

The dog chased its own tail

The only reason to add an apostrophe to ‘its’ is to show that it’s a contraction of ‘it is’.

We should therefore write:

It’s time we were going


Using an apostrophe to show omission

A key reason for using an apostrophe is to indicate that some letters are missing. A common example of this comes with contractions when people merge words together. This happens a lot in real-life dialogue and so it’s vital that we reflect this in our fiction writing. We use the apostrophe to do this.

Dialogue without contractions will soon start to feel rather slow, clunky and – worst of all – unnatural. The aim of the novelist is to create credible characters that the reader can engage with and immerse themselves in. Having dialogue that sounds unrealistic is a quick way of dragging them out of the world you’ve created, the last thing you want to happen.


For example:

I am on my way to work


would sound more natural as:


I’m on my way to work

Causes of confusion with apostrophes – There/They’re and Were/We’re

The two pairs of words above are often mixed up by writers – with the risk of confusing or distracting readers.

Let’s go through them individually:

There is an adverb used in indicating the position of someone or something:


There is that man we saw before.


They’re is a contraction of they are.

They’re going to be late as they missed the bus.

Were is a past tense form of the verb ‘be’.

Sophie and Clive were strolling through the woods when they saw the man again

We’re is a contraction of we are.

We’re here to report a man we saw acting suspiciously in the woods.

The easy way to decide whether to use 'there' or 'they’re' is to say the sentence using 'they are'. If it makes sense then 'they’re' is the word to use. If not, then use 'there'.

The same method can be used for 'were' and 'we’re'.  

Many people omit parts of words when they speak. Apostrophes enable fiction authors to reflect this in the dialogue they write for their characters – taking the place of the missing parts of the word.

They can come at the beginning of words:


’e should be here any minute.

Or at the end of words:


Are you comin’ or not?


Or at the beginning and end of words:


I like to eat my fish ’n’ chips while listening to rock ’n’ roll.


Notice how apostrophes take the form of a closing quotation mark even when they come at the start of a word. It is important to watch out for this as Microsoft Word will usually type an opening quotation mark in this context, and so you will need to amend it.


One more use for apostrophes

Normally when we make a noun into a plural, we don’t use an apostrophe. In fact, there’s nothing that infuriates grammar pedants more than when people do!

Both these sentences are wrong:


I need to buy some banana’s from the supermarket.

The Beatles were a global phenomenon in the 1960’s.

They should read:


I need to buy some bananas from the supermarket.

The Beatles were a global phenomenon in the 1960s.


There is, though, one very specific instance when apostrophes are used to form a plural: when turning lower case letters into plurals.

For example, it could be confusing if we wrote:


Some practical joker removed all the as from my keyboard.

It’s much clearer if we say:


Some practical joker removed all the a’s from my keyboard.

Likewise, it’s correct to write:


You need to watch your p’s and q’s.

Before agreeing, make sure you check the t’s and c’s.


Note that an apostrophe is not needed when making upper case letters plural as the meaning is clear. It is correct to write:


Joanne got three As in her exams.

Using apostrophes with surnames

One area that can cause confusion among new writers is that of surnames.

The examples below show the correct use (or non-use) of apostrophes in a number of scenarios:


Mr and Mrs Fletcher

The Fletchers live at number 1 Apostrophe Boulevard.

Mr Fletcher’s bike is parked outside the front door.

The Fletchers’ home has a patio in the back garden.


Mr and Mrs Williams

The Williamses live at number 3 Apostrophe Boulevard.

Mrs Williams’s VW is parked in the driveway.

The Williamses’ home has a water feature in the back garden.


Mr and Mrs Saggars

The Saggars live at number 5 Apostrophe Boulevard.

Mrs Saggars’ BMW is parked in the double garage.

And so is Mr Saggars’ Audi.

The Saggars’ recent National Lottery win made their neighbours really jealous.


When a surname ends with an ‘s’ it can be a fine judgement over whether to pluralise it with an ‘es’ (as in the case of the Williams family) or simply leave it as it is (as in the case of the Saggars family). It comes down to whichever version is easier and more natural to pronounce. Whichever you choose, it is important to be consistent throughout your novel when dealing with that surname.

In both cases, when using the plural version of the name in the possessive sense, it will end with an apostrophe as in the cases above.


Using apostrophes in novels: Conclusion

Apostrophes are a vital way for fiction writers to ensure their work is clear and unambiguous. While the rules concerning the correct use of apostrophes may seem quite complex at first, it really is worth putting in the time to get to grips with them as this will give your work an added air of professionalism.

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