Can you spot the apostrophe error?
- Use apostrophes with nouns to show possession.
- Know when to use apostrophes to show possession in pronouns.
- Know how to use apostrophes to form contractions.
Apostrophes are a tool for making English more streamlined. Instead of saying, “the book that belongs to Elizabeth,” you can say, “Elizabeth’s book.” Instead of saying, “I cannot come,” you can say, “I can’t come.” Although you could avoid using apostrophes, your writing will be more natural if you learn the rules for using possessives and contractions appropriately. Some people also opt to use apostrophes to form plurals in certain situations, but many usage experts continue to warn against this practice.
Using Apostrophes with Nouns to Show Possession
You form a possessive when you want to show a noun or pronoun in a sentence has ownership of another noun or pronoun.
Standard Singular and Plural Nouns
As shown in the following table, most nouns follow standard patterns for forming plurals.
|Situation||Rule||Example 1||Example 2|
|Singular noun||Add apostrophe + –s.||dog’s collar||class’s assignment|
|Plural noun ending in s||Add only an apostrophe.||dogs’ collars||classes’ assignments|
|Plural noun ending in any letter other than s||Add apostrophe + –s.||people’s plans||women’s plans|
|Proper nouns||Follow the regular noun rules.||Finches’ family home||Atticus’s glasses|
|Business names||Use the format the company has chosen whether or not it matches possessive formation guidelines.||McDonald’s employees||Starbucks stores|
When forming the possessive of a compound noun, form the possession only on the last word. Use standard guidelines for that word.
- sister-in-law’s hair
- six-year-olds’ growth patterns
- wallpapers’ patterns
- courthouse’s aura
Two or More Nouns
When two or more nouns both possess another noun, form the possession only with the second noun if you are noting joint ownership. Form a possession on both nouns if each possession is independent.
- Jem and Scout’s escapades (the joint escapades of the two children)
- Jem’s and Scout’s escapades (the separate escapades of the two children)
Understanding Apostrophes and Possessive Pronouns
Possessive pronouns (his, her, hers, its, my, mine, our, ours, their, theirs, your, yours) show possession without an apostrophe.
- Is this hat yours?
- Those are his shoes.
- The dress is hers.
Indefinite pronouns (another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everyone, everything,nobody, no one, nothing, one, other, others, somebody, someone, something) require an apostrophe to show possession.
- another’s problem
- everyone’s problems
Using Apostrophes to Form Contractions
Contractions are shortened versions of two or more words where an apostrophe marks the missing letters. English has a wide range of common contractions, including those in the following table.
|Words in Contraction||Contraction||Words in Contraction||Contraction|
|I am||I’m||what will||what’ll|
|we are||we’re||they will||they’ll|
|what is||what’s||what has||what’s|
|can not||can’t||should not||shouldn’t|
|does not||doesn’t||do not||don’t|
In addition to the many standard contractions, people often create custom, on-the-spot contractions.
My husband’s (husband is) also coming.
As a reader, you have to use context to know if the use of “husband’s” is possessive or a contraction since the two are visually the same.
- My husband’s also coming.
- My husband’s watch is on the table.
Using Apostrophes to Form Plurals
Some people choose to form plurals of individual letters, numbers, and words referred to as terms. Many usage experts frown on this practice and instead choose to form the plurals by simply adding an –s. Here are some examples of the two options, as well as methods of avoiding having to choose either option.
Situation: more than one of the letter t
Plurals using apostrophes: There are two t’s in Atticus.
Plurals without using apostrophes: There are two ts in Atticus.
Avoiding the choice: The letter t shows up in Atticus twice.
Situation: more than one of the number 5
Plurals using apostrophes: If I remember right, the address has three 5’s in it.
Plurals without using apostrophes: If I remember right, the address has three 5s in it.
Avoiding the choice: If I remember right, the number 5 shows up three times in the address.
Situation: more than one “there” in a sentence
Plurals using apostrophes: This sentence has five there’s.
Plurals without using apostrophes: This sentence has five theres.
Avoiding the choice: The word “there” is used five times in this sentence.
- Form possessives of most singular noun by adding apostrophe + –s and of most plural nouns by adding just an apostrophe. For plural nouns ending in letters other than –s add apostrophe + –s.
- In compound nouns, form the plural on the last word.
- When two or more nouns possess another noun jointly, form the possession only on the last noun. If the two nouns have independent ownership, form the possession on each noun.
- Possessive pronouns indicate possession without the use of an apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns need an apostrophe to show possession.
- In contractions, apostrophes are used to indicate omitted letters.
- It is an increasingly acceptable option to use an apostrophe to form the plurals of letters, numbers, and words referred to as terms, but many usage experts still frown on the practice.