The Flinders University School of Humanities Style Guide

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Abbreviations Apostrophes Contractions Possession Possessive Plurals


Abbreviations should be avoided as much as possible in academic and formal writing, as they have the potential to lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretation. They should be avoided particularly within the body of an essay; in notes and references they are sometimes appropriate, but should always be clear. Never begin a sentence with an abbreviation.

Avoid Latin abbreviations such as “ibid” and “op. cit”; these forms of reference are no longer widely used, and can cause confusion for readers unfamiliar with them.

If you do use abbreviations, be sure you are certain of their meanings, and are using them correctly. Two abbreviations that are very frequently confused are “i.e.”, which means “that is”, and “e.g.”, which means “for example”. Use of “etc.” often suggests a writer’s failure to think through a problem or to provide necessary details.

Full stops in abbreviations

There is no need to follow an abbreviation with a full stop if the abbreviated form of the word ends in the same letter as the full form of the word. For example:

Mr, Dr, Mrs, Jr, St

This is true also for plural forms: for example, the correct abbreviation of “volumes” is “vols”, without a full stop. The exception to this rule is “no.”, standing for number (from the Italian, numero).

Full stops are also unnecessary in capitalised abbreviations for standard works of reference (OED), countries and institutions (UK, UN), and bibliographical references (MS).

Full stops are necessary in lower-case abbreviations for expressions of more than one word: a.m., p.m., e.g., i.e.


Apostrophes: contraction and possession

Apostrophes appear to be one of the least well understood forms of punctuation. There are only two situations in which it is correct to use an apostrophe: when indicating a contraction, and when indicating the possessive. Never use apostrophes simply to indicate a plural; plurals are indicated simply by adding “s” or “es” as appropriate, and as necessary (a few nouns, e.g. “sheep”, do not need any change to indicate the plural).

One rose, two roses, not two rose’s
One lecture, a series of lectures, not a series of lecture’s


Contractions are words or phrases that have been shortened by the omission of one or more letters. An apostrophe indicates the place where the omitted letters once stood:

did not – didn’t
cannot – can’t
it is – it’s

Normally you should avoid using contractions in academic and formal writing. Use full forms.



An apostrophe plus “s” at the end of the final letter of a singular noun indicates ownership of the word immediately following.

the dog’s toy = the toy belonging to the dog
the lady’s car = the car belonging to the lady
the committee’s ruling = the ruling made by the committee

To work out whether or not there should be an apostrophe, simply invert the phrase as above and assess whether you do mean to indicate ownership. For example:

the dogs toy

The meaning here can be expressed equally clearly by saying “the toy belonging to the dog”, indicating that there is possession being expressed. Thus an apostrophe is needed to indicate the possessive: the correct form is “the dog’s toy”.


The dogs are playing

The meaning of this sentence is not “the playing belonging to the dogs”, but rather “the dogs are engaging in play”. There is no ownership or possession indicated in this sentence, and no apostrophe is needed. In this sentence "dogs" is the straightforward plural form of dog.

Possessive pronouns present a different case:

it its
him his
her hers
them their
our ours

These pronouns already indicate possession, and therefore do not need apostrophes.

Please note especially the possessive form of it, as in “the audience made its opinion clear”. The confusion of “its” and “it’s” is a common error. An easy way to work out which form is correct is to remember that “it’s”, i.e. with an apostrophe, actually means “it is”. Say the sentence out loud using “it is” to judge whether an apostrophe is appropriate. For example:

The dog chewed on it’s bone.

When you read this sentence out loud, replacing “it’s with “it is” – “The dog chewed on it is bone” – the sentence makes no sense, and it quickly becomes clear that this is the wrong form of “it”. The appropriate form is the possessive “its” – the bone belongs to the dog.


Possessive plurals

If the noun in question is plural, and ends in “s”, simply add an apostrophe after the final “s”:

the dogs’ toy = the toy belonging to more than one dog
the ladies’ car = the car belonging to the ladies
the committees’ ruling = the ruling of more than one committee

Note, though, that plural words that do not end in “s” – e.g. “men”, “women” – are treated in the same way as singular words:

Singular: The car belonging to one woman = the woman’s car
Plural, not ending in “s”: The car belonging to several women = the women’s car


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MHRA Referencing

Flinders University Library

Professor Graham Tulloch of the English Department has written a booklet entitled English Grammar: A Short Guide. This text covers fundamental aspects of English grammar, such as parts of a word, parts of a sentence, and parts of speech


















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