Apostrophes

Punctuation is key in spelling and grammar and apostrophes are no exception. Apostrophes ( ’ ) are used to show possession, plurals or omission, and you will see them everywhere. Read on to find out how and when to use this important punctuation mark.

Showing Possession

The rules surrounding apostrophe use with possessive nouns and pronouns can sometimes cause the most confusion. Read on to learn the different uses.

Possessive Nouns:

General rule of thumb dictates that the possessive form of a singular noun is formed by adding an apostrophe + s, whether the singular noun ends in ‘s’ or not.

For singular nouns (nouns that are not plural and don’t end in ‘s’) - add apostrophe + s:

The boy’s teacher is on vacation.

The cat’s toy is in the bin.

The car’s engine failed.

For plural nouns, simply add an apostrophe after the ‘s’:

The boys’ (multiple boys) teacher is on vacation.

The cats’ (multiple cats) toys are in the bin.

The cars’ (multiple cars) engines failed.

Possessive Noun Exceptions

When a singular proper noun ends in ‘s’, there are two ways to approach apostrophes according to style guides. Please note that both versions of punctuation are correct, but when writing, be consistent with one version throughout the piece (don't mix Style 1 with Style 2). Consistency is key.

Style 1 - add only an apostrophe after the ‘s’:

Mrs. Jones’ house was blue. (The house belonging to Mrs. Jones was blue)

The Beatles’ first album was released in 1963.

Style 2 - add an apostrophe + s after the ‘s’ in the word:

Mrs. Jones’s house was blue.

The Beatles’s first album was released in 1963.

However, when faced with a plural proper noun that ends in ‘s’, only add an apostrophe after the ‘s’:

The Harrisons’ new dog. (The dog belonged to multiple members of the Harrisons household)

The United States’ COVID debt relief program was highly contested amongst lawmakers. (The United States is plural because there are 50 states that make up the country)

Please Note: Apostrophes do not make nouns plural. However, an exception can be made in the case of lowercase letters in their plural form:

Don’t forget to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s

Don’t forget to dot all your is and cross all your ts. (Note how without the apostrophe, the plural nouns are awkward or form words with other meanings)

Mind your p’s and q’s.

Mind your ps and qs.

Possessive Pronouns

Unlike regular nouns, personal pronouns (he, she, them, I, we, etc.) do not use apostrophes to form possessives - even when independent forms such as yours, his, their, ours, its and theirs end in ‘s’.

How to Handle Joint Possession

When talking about things that belong to more than one person, make only the final name possessive with an apostrophe:

Tino and Tony’s hair salon just opened on Main Street. (Tino and Tony own the salon together)

Sabrina, Jacob, and Paige’s parents work in the city. (All three people have the same parents)

However, when you’re talking about separate things that belong to different people, make all the names possessive:

Tino’s and Tony’s hair salons just opened down the road from one another on Main Street. (Both Tino and Tony own their own salons separately)

Sabrina’s, Jacob’s, and Paige’s parents all work in the city. (Each person has different parents)

Contractions and Omissions

A contraction is a condensed version of two words (sometimes a group of words) that omits certain letters to become one word, with an apostrophe representing the omitted letters. While common, contractions are casual and should be avoided in academic writing.

Common Contractions

  • Do not = Don’t
  • Can not = Can’t
  • Is not = Isn’t
  • We will = We’ll
  • I am = I’m
  • Let us = Let’s
  • He is = He’s / She is = She’s

It is also acceptable to use an apostrophe as an omission in cases such as years, or when writing informally, such as slang.

  • Omissions with Numbers: 1999 = ‘99
  • Omissions in Slang: Something = Somethin’

In the event you come across a word or phrase that you're unsure of, consult a style guide such as the Chicago Manual or AP Stylebook on how to handle any apostrophe use that may be in question. For other grammar tips and tricks, check out the rest of the articles on our site.

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