Apostrophe catastrophes and how to avoid them

the wrong 'it's' sign

I saw this today, and it stopped me in my tracks.

I wondered how many people had okayed the copy before it got made into a sign, and how many people who walked past noticed. And does it even matter? I still understood not to walk down that path, so you could argue that the sign did its job just fine.

As a writer, I think it does matter. Getting it wrong muddles the meaning. This sign is confusing, and signs should be clear.

And I know there are bigger things going on right now than apostrophe catastrophes, but it’s just as easy to get it right as get it wrong, if you think about it like this.

The it’s/its rule

It’s is short for ‘it is,’ while its is possessive. Its is just like his or her or their or your – think of them as a family. Reading your sentence aloud should make it clear to you which it’s/its you need. In this case ‘it will seriously damage it is health’ doesn’t make any sense, so it must be the other one. To check, try substituting another of the possessive family of words, and read it aloud again. ‘it will seriously damage his health,’ is a clear sentence, so that’s the one you need.

And the you’re/your rule

Another one it’s easy to get wrong is your and you’re. I see it a lot in blogs, and on websites that you would have thought would have known better. And it’s such a silly mistake to make. Your means it belongs to you, while you’re is short for you are. Again, if you’re not sure, say the sentence out loud. Test ‘your gorgeous, darling,’ by substituting a different possessive word. ‘Her gorgeous, darling’ won’t get you the girl, while ‘you are gorgeous, darling’ just might do it.

Of course, even people who know this get it wrong. I get it wrong in first drafts. We type faster than we think. So always check, and re-check before sending something off to print, pressing publish on your blog, or whizzing off that email.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you, Sharon, for continuing to insist on decent spelling and writing. It makes such a difference.

    And while we’re on the subject, let me toss in a plea for another common spelling problem. Here’s the great device my friend Sandy Styer came up with to distinguish between “compliment” and “complement”:

    May I give my complIments to the chef. The vEgetables complEmented the entrée perfectly.

    Fight the good fight!

  2. Thanks Charles, that’s another good one to remember.
    Writing about the importance of apostrophes feels a bit like fiddling while Rome burns at the moment. Our news here is full of riots, looting and violence. Still, maybe that’s all the more reason to stand up for being articulate and making yourself understood…….

  3. Thanks Marc, I won’t mention them! I used to be an English teacher and the urge to mark everything still hasn’t really left me!

  4. Love the article Sharon. Have you read ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss? It’s a fantastic book on grammatical correctness. I particularly like the fact it gives you stickers to post on any offending signs. Sticklers unite! Red pens at the ready.

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