4 Simple Things to Remember about Apostrophes

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Apostrophes can seem like trivial, petty little things, and hardly worth the trouble they cause! But they are quite important. Using them well can make your writing a lot clearer, and using them poorly is a really bad look.

So take a few moments to make sure you’ve got a handle on apostrophes. At the end, I have a simple test for you.

1. Ownership

words with apostrophes

A major use of apostrophes is to indicate possession, or ownership. For example, the bone of the dog is the dog’s bone. If we leave out the apostrophe in dog’s bone, we have dogs, indicating the plural—that is, many dogs—which will cause momentary confusion for the reader.


There are some important exceptions to watch out for. Tradition dictates that these possessives don’t have an apostrophe: hers, its, yours, ours, theirs, his.

These are known as possessive pronouns. You just have to remember that they don’t have an apostrophe! (See below for more on its vs it’s.)

Dealing with words ending in s

What if it’s the dog of James? James already ends in s. The answer depends on how you prefer to say it aloud. Either of these is fine: James’ dog or James’s dog.

Ownership and plurals

The dog’s bone means the bone of the dog—that is, just of one dog. What about the bone of the dogs? Dogs already has an s at the end. The answer is simple: just place the apostrophe after the s: the dogs’ bone.

Watch out for some plurals. The plural of company is companies. So we get the company’s website (that is, the website of the company), but the companies’ websites (or the websites of the companies).

Family names can be tricky. The Jones family can be referred to as the Joneses. In that case, you’d refer to the Joneses’ dog, with the apostrophe at the end.

Also be careful with words like men, women and children. Because these are already plural, you just add ’s as usual. For example, the men’s team played the women’s team.

2. Apostrophes with Plurals

words with apostrophes

When you have more than one dog, you have dogs. Simple: you just add an s to the word.

Unfortunately, there can be a temptation to add an apostrophe to plurals even when ownership isn’t involved. This is a huge mistake, and is traditionally called the greengrocer’s apostrophe, as it’s very common to see signs for apple’s and orange’s outside fruit shops. O dear!

Making exceptions to avoid confusion

Occasionally, an apostrophe is used with plurals to avoid confusion. For example, the phrase mind your p’s and q’s would be confusing without apostrophes.

Be careful, though. There’s nothing confusing about referring to CDs, DVDs, CMSs and the like, so don’t use apostrophes there (as in CD’s). And there’s no need for an apostrophe in something like the 1990s.

3. Missing Letters

words with apostrophes

In English, we often contract words. For example, instead of saying that is nice, we say that’s nice. The i of is gets dropped, and the s joins with that.

You may argue that it’s no big deal to leave out an apostrophe here, because there’s no apostrophe in spoken English. But there are two reasons to get this right. Firstly, you look silly if you can’t do something as simple as this. Secondly, leaving it out can lead to confusion.

For example, it’s common to reduce he will to he’ll. Leaving out the apostrophe here would be hell. Likewise, instead of she’ll, we’d end up with shell. And we’d would be wed, we’ll would be well, we’re would read as were, and so on.

Even though we don’t use an apostrophe in spoken English, we pronounce he’ll differently from hell, so it’s important to differentiate them in writing.

It’s vs Its

Perhaps the most common and embarrassing punctuation error is the confusion between it’s and its.

It’s is a contraction of it is (or it has). So a simple way to determine whether or not its requires an apostrophe is to see it if makes sense as it is.

For example, it’s a nice day makes sense as it is a nice day. Thus, the apostrophe is required.

However, the dog chewed its bone can’t be changed to the dog chewed it is bone. Thus, an apostrophe is not appropriate here.

As we saw above, its is a possessive pronoun, and traditionally doesn’t have an apostrophe—just like hers, theirs and so on. If the possessive form of its did have an apostrophe, it would get confused with it’s (it is).

By the way, if you’re wondering when it’s appropriate to use its’, the answer is never!

Other words that get confused

Other words get badly confused when apostrophes are left out.

You’re (short for you are) is often confused with your. This is really just a straight out spelling mistake, but it arises partly from not thinking about what’s being expressed.

Likewise, they’re (short for they are) is confused with their (meaning of them) and there (indicating location).

And don’t confuse who’s (short for who is) with whose (meaning of whom).

4. Apostrophes with Verbs

Verbs are action words, like run, sit and walk. When used with he, she and it, we add an s: he runs, she sits, it walks.

A common mistake is to add an apostrophe, thus producing run’s, sit’s, walk’s. There’s never a time when this is appropriate, and such usage really should be a capital crime.

Test Yourself

OK, here’s a chance to test yourself. Which of these examples uses correct punctuation? (Answers are provided below.)

  1. It’s OK to ask questions.
  2. Most dog’s possess a tail.
  3. Marys’ blog is better.
  4. Dont be so sure.
  5. Well, we’ll see.
  6. You’re going to regret this.
  7. She cut off their tail’s with a carving knife.
  8. She was the people’s advocate.
  9. The car lost its hubcap.
  10. The bosses’ employees went on strike.
  11. DVDs are are a bit old now.
  12. A woman played in the mens’ team.
  13. The Web began in the early 1990’s.
  14. She clearly walk’s the walk.
  15. Mr Apple’s oranges are very sweet.
  16. He was in his 40s when he got married.
  17. Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth.
  18. It’s hard keeping up with the Joneses.

So, how did you go? Do the explanations in this article make sense? If you have any questions, please raise them in the comments.

Here are the correct examples from the list above:

1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Apostrophes

What is the correct way to use apostrophes in possessive nouns?

The correct use of apostrophes in possessive nouns depends on whether the noun is singular or plural. For singular nouns, add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ at the end of the word. For example, “the dog’s bone” refers to the bone of one dog. For plural nouns ending in ‘s’, add an apostrophe at the end of the word. For example, “the dogs’ bone” refers to the bone of multiple dogs. For plural nouns not ending in ‘s’, add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ at the end of the word, like “children’s books”.

How do I use apostrophes with contractions?

Contractions are shortened forms of words or phrases. An apostrophe is used to indicate the omission of letters or numbers. For example, “don’t” is a contraction of “do not”, and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has”. The apostrophe takes the place of the omitted letter or letters.

Can an apostrophe be used to indicate plurals?

Generally, apostrophes should not be used to indicate plurals. They are primarily used for showing possession and contractions. However, there are a few exceptions, such as when making single letters plural. For example, “Mind your p’s and q’s.”

How do I use apostrophes with names ending in ‘s’?

For names ending in ‘s’, you can either add an apostrophe at the end of the name, or add an apostrophe and an ‘s’. Both “James’ book” and “James’s book” are considered correct, but usage may vary based on regional or stylistic preferences.

What are some common mistakes in using apostrophes?

Some common mistakes include using an apostrophe to indicate plurals, using an apostrophe with possessive pronouns, or omitting an apostrophe in contractions. For example, “its” is a possessive pronoun and should not have an apostrophe, while “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has” and requires an apostrophe.

How do I use apostrophes with compound nouns?

For compound nouns, the apostrophe is placed at the end of the compound noun. For example, “my mother-in-law’s hat”. If the compound noun is plural, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’, like “two weeks’ notice”.

Can an apostrophe be used to indicate time or quantity?

Yes, apostrophes can be used to indicate time or quantity. For example, “a day’s pay” or “two weeks’ vacation”. The apostrophe shows a relationship of belonging between the time or quantity and the thing it is related to.

How do I use apostrophes in abbreviations?

In abbreviations, apostrophes are used to indicate omitted letters. For example, “rock ‘n’ roll” is an abbreviation of “rock and roll”, with the apostrophes indicating the omitted letters.

Can an apostrophe be used in a singular noun ending in ‘s’?

Yes, a singular noun ending in ‘s’ can take an apostrophe and an additional ‘s’ for possession. For example, “the boss’s office”. However, some style guides suggest just adding an apostrophe, like “the boss’ office”.

How do I use apostrophes with joint possession?

For joint possession, where two or more entities share ownership of something, the apostrophe is placed after the last entity only. For example, “John and Mary’s car” indicates that the car is jointly owned by John and Mary.

Ralph MasonRalph Mason
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Ralph is a production manager at SitePoint and a freelance copyeditor, web designer and teacher at Page Affairs.

apostropheitsits vs it'spluralpunctuationRalphM
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