Using Apostrophes to Replace Letters (Forming Contractions)

by Craig Shrives

Apostrophes Replace Letters to Form Contractions

An apostrophe can be used to show that a word is a contraction.

apostrophes replace missing letters in contractions


In a contraction, the apostrophe replaces a missing letter or letters. Most often, but not always, a contraction uses the remaining letters of the original words. For example:
Original Word(s)Contraction
cannot
can't
she
+
would
she'd
they
+
will
they'll

More Examples of Apostrophes in Contractions

In these examples, the contractions are highlighted:
  • The weather's bad.
  • (Written in full: "The weather is bad.")
    (In this example, the apostrophe replaces the letter i, and the two words are joined to make one. The new word is a contraction.)
  • Don't think about it.
  • (In full: "Do not think about it.")
    In this example, the apostrophe replaces the letter o, and the two words are joined to make a contraction.
  • Alan can't deliver on Tuesdays.
  • (In full: "Alan cannot deliver on Tuesdays.")
  • If you don't fail now and again, it's a sign you're playing it safe. (Actor Woody Allen)
  • (In full: "If you do not fail now and again, it is a sign you are playing it safe.")
  • Don't look now, but there's one too many in this room, and I think it's you. (Groucho Marx)
  • (In full: "Do not look now, but there is one too many in this room, and I think it is you.")
  • Blood's not thicker than money. (Groucho Marx)
  • (In full: "Blood is not thicker than money.")

Examples of Wrongly Placed Apostrophes in Contractions

Here are two examples of a wrongly placed apostrophes in contractions.


The apostrophe error in this Christmas-cracker joke is funnier than the joke.
(This is a rare mistake.)
  • Sally is'nt able to complete her work.
  • (This should be "isn't," which is a contraction of "is not." Writing "is'nt" is the most common mistake with misplacing an apostrophe in a contraction. However, it is still rare.)

Only Use Apostrophes to Replace Letters in Standard Contractions

You cannot invent your own contractions.
  • g'tar
  • (The apostrophe replaces the "ui" in "guitar," but this is not a recognized contraction.)
  • potato's
  • (The apostrophe replaces the "e" in "potatoes," but this is not a recognized contraction.)

List of Contractions in English

Here is a list of common contractions in English:
ContractionOriginal
aren'tare not
can'tcannot
couldn'tcould not
didn'tdid not
doesn'tdoes not
don'tdo not
hadn'thad not
hasn'thas not
haven'thave not
he'dhe had, he would
he'llhe will, he shall
he'she is, he has
I'dI had, I would
I'llI will, I shall
I'mI am
I'veI have
isn'tis not
it'sit is, it has
let'slet us
mustn'tmust not
shan'tshall not
she'dshe had, she would
she'llshe will, she shall
she'sshe is, she has
shouldn'tshould not
that'sthat is, that has
there'sthere is, there has
they'dthey had, they would
they'llthey will, they shall
they'rethey are
they'vethey have
we'dwe had, we would
we'rewe are
we'vewe have
weren'twere not
what'llwhat will, what shall
what'rewhat are
what'swhat is, what has
what'vewhat have
where'swhere is, where has
who'dwho had, who would
who'llwho will, who shall
who'rewho are
who'swho is, who has
who'vewho have
won't*will not
wouldn'twould not
you'dyou had, you would
you'llyou will, you shall
you'reyou are
you'veyou have
The contraction "won't" is worthy of special mention because it uses the letter o, which does not feature in the words ("will not"). "Won't" is actually a contraction of "wonnot," which itself is a contraction of "woll not." "Woll" derives from the Old English verb "willan" (to wish or to will). As this verb slowly transformed to "will" over the centuries, the contracted negative form "won't" survived.

Read more about contractions.

Common Mistakes Related to Contractions

Here are seven common writing issues involving apostrophes and contractions:

(Issue 1) Don't Merge Three Words

Do not merge three words with a contraction. For example:
Original Word(s)Contraction
he
+
would
+
have
he'd've
With the exception of "can't" and "cannot" (which is one word), contractions merge two words. For example:
Original Word(s)Contraction
he
+
would
+
have
he'd
+
have
he
+
would
+
have
he
+
would've

(Issue 2) Do Not Confuse "You're" and "Your"

"You're" is short for "you are." For example:
  • You're a naughty boy.
  • The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. (Lily Tomlin)
"Your" is not short for "you are." It is used to show possession. For example:
  • This is your PC.
  • This is you're PC.
  • Your a star.
  • (This should be "you're.")
Read more on "you're" and "your.

(Issue 3) Do Not Confuse "It's" and "Its

"It's" is short for "it has" or "it is." (There are no other uses.) For example:
  • It's stopped raining, and it's sunny.
  • (It has stopped raining, and it is sunny.)
"Its," on the other hand, is similar to "his" and "her" and is used to show possession. For example:
  • I'm near the whale. I can see its tail.
  • This is it's fourth journey.
  • This should be "its.")
  • Its as easy as falling off a log.
  • This should be "It's.")
  • A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. (Winston Churchill)
Read more about "it's" and "its.

(Issue 4) Do Not Write "Should Of"

"Should've" sounds like "should of," but it is short for "should have." (This is the same for "could've" and "would've.")
  • should of
  • could of
  • would of

(Issue 5) Write "Cannot" As One Word

As an expansion of "can't," "cannot" is one word.
  • I can not stand in the rain for too long.
  • A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
Although rare, it is possible to see "can" and "not" as two separate words. However, this is not usually an expansion of can't.
  • Rebecca can not only sing but dance too.
(Note: There is a lot of leniency on this ruling. Many like to use can not over cannot for added emphasis.)

(Issue 6) There Is No Apostrophe in "Ours"

Words like "ours," "theirs," "yours," and "hers" (called possessive pronouns) do not have apostrophes in them.
  • These books are ours.
  • You can use our's.
  • I saw theirs'.
Read more about possessive pronouns.

(Issue 7) Write Contractions in Full in Business Writing

Contractions reflect how people speak. They are generally reserved for informal writing. In business writing, it is unusual to use contractions because they can make your writing look too informal. Unless your business has an informal "voice" (like, say, Virgin and Red Bull), it is a good practice to play it safe and write all words in their full forms.
  • Therefore, the delivery date can't be met.
  • (This is not wrong, but it might be too informal for your company's "voice.")
  • It's available for collection on Tuesday.
  • (Not wrong but possibly too informal)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Using apostrophes The apostrophe error with plurals Apostrophes in time (temporal) expressions Apostrophes to show the plural of abbreviations Apostrophes show possession