How to use apostrophes correctly in applications

Selection panels may use your application to judge the quality of your writing skills. If your application contains grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors, they will contradict any claim you make to your high-level writing skills.

Grammar is about the structure of English. It underpins meaning, plus it can be about the style best suited to the particular communication. The longer sentences become, the more they need good grammar to make sense.

Punctuation helps readers understand what they are reading by indicating relationships between words, pauses, and emotions.

Apostrophes are a common source of error. For example, a person may write:

‘I have demonstrated my strategic thinking by aligning my projects with the departments goals. My teams understanding of these goals is high and we collectively decide whose going to lead a project.’

This example reflects the two ways in which apostrophes are used:

To show possession: an apostrophe is used to show that something belongs to or is owned by someone. This ‘something’ may be concrete, such as a book, or abstract, such as goals or understanding.

The rules for using possessive apostrophes are:

  • Add ’s to a singular word: the project’s goals; the team’s outcome; the manager’s style.
  • Add ’s to a plural word that does not end in s: the people’s consultation, the men’s program.
  • With plural words ending in s, add an apostrophe at the end: the ladies’ team; the managers’ meeting.

To show contraction: an apostrophe is used to show that letters or words are missing. They are contractions. Common examples are: can’t = cannot; would’ve = would have; who’s = who is. In general contractions tend not to be used in formal writing, like applications, as they can sound casual.

The correct version of the above example is:

‘I have demonstrated my strategic thinking by aligning my projects with the department’s goals. My team’s understanding of these goals is high and we collectively decide who is [rather than who’s] going to lead a project.’

In this example the goals are owned by the department, the understanding is owned by the team, and ‘who is’ is the formal expression of the contraction.

Some further points to note:

  • ‘whose’ is a possessive relative pronoun: for example: The team whose record was outstanding produced another great result.
  • ‘it’s’ is short for ‘it is’. ‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun. For example: It’s going to be a long project. Its milestones have been established.
  • Do not use an apostrophe with possessive pronouns: his, theirs, ours, yours, its.
  • If a name already has an s at the end and adding a second one makes it sound clumsy, then add an apostrophe only. For example, it may sound okay to refer to Thomas’s project, but not Biggins’s project. The latter can be Biggins’ project.
  • When referring to time periods an apostrophe may be needed: three weeks’ holiday; ten years’ experience.
  • Be clear about whether a word is singular or plural when indicating ownership. For example, ‘The customers complaints were considered’ is ambiguous. Should this be: The customer’s complaints were considered. Or The customers’ complaints were considered?
  • For joint possession and for compound nouns, use the apostrophe rules for singular/plural nouns on the last noun only. For example: Johnson and Green’s presentation was well received. The Leaders of the Parliaments’ report was   presented to the UN.
  • Many formal names, such as place or street names, do not need an apostrophe. For example, Kings Cross, Thomsons Park.
  • An apostrophe is not needed if the word before a noun is more descriptive than possessive, such as ‘my drivers licence’.

When proof-reading your application, ask yourself:

  • Does anyone own something in this sentence?
  • Is there any contraction in this sentence?
  • Have I used a contraction when it would be better not to?
  • Have I referred to time periods that show possession?
  • Have I confused ownership with singular and plural words?
  • Have I used an apostrophe on a plural word where there is no ownership?
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.