Using Apostrophes

The Rules for Using Apostrophes

The apostrophe is only small, but it is a real grammar villain. Mastering apostrophes is important because your readers will be highly unimpressed with wrongly placed ones. Consequently, of all the punctuation marks, the apostrophe is the one with most potential to damage your credibility. Don't worry though. We've got you covered. We have lots of great tips for learning apostrophes.

Apostrophes are used in four ways:
  • to show possession (e.g., dog's dinner)
  • in time expressions (e.g., 2 years' pay)
  • in contractions (e.g., isn't)
  • to show awkward plurals, but only very awkward plural (e.g., i's and a's)

Table of Contents

  • Four Ways to Use Apostrophes
  • Three Common Mistakes with Apostrophes
  • Use of Apostrophes Explained in Detail
  • (1) Using Apostrophes for Possession
  • (2) Using Apostrophes in Time Expressions
  • (3) Using Apostrophes to Replace Letters in Contractions
  • (4) Using Apostrophes in Awkward Plurals
  • Using Apostrophes Incorrectly with Plurals
  • Video Lesson
  • Video on Possessive Apostrophes (A Neat Trick)
  • Test Time!
rules for using apostrophes

Four Ways to Use Apostrophes

We will cover all four uses of the apostrophe in detail later in the lesson. For now, here are more examples of the four ways to use apostrophes with a key observation for each one:

(1) To show possession.

  • a dog's kennel correct tick
  • our boys' bedroom correct tick
  • the children's toys correct tick

Amazing Tip! The letters before the apostrophe always spell the possessor perfectly. So, in the first example, the letters before the apostrophe spell "dog" (not "dogs"). In the second, they spell "boys" (not "boy"). In the third, they spell "children" (not "childrens"). Look again. The letters before the apostrophe always spell the possessor perfectly. This is a 100% rule. If you remember it, you can ignore the seemingly complicated rules that follow.

(2) To write time expressions.

  • a day's pay correct tick
  • two weeks' holiday correct tick
  • one month's salary correct tick

Amazing Tip! The rule above works for time expressions too! The letters before the apostrophe always spell the unit of time perfectly.

(3) To replace letters in contractions.

  • can't correct tick
  • it's correct tick
  • you're correct tick

Amazing Tip! Some writers confuse contractions with normal words (e.g., it's with its, you're with your). To prevent this error, expand the contraction to the full form (e.g., it is, you are). If your sentence no longer makes sense, then the word you expanded was not a contraction and should not contain an apostrophe. Simple.

(4) To show awkward plurals.

  • Accommodation has two a's. correct tick
  • Hawaii has two i's. correct tick
  • There are three big if's. correct tick

Beware! Using an apostrophe for a plural is disliked by many writers, but it can be efficient. Showing an awkward plural with an apostrophe is condoned by all the leading grammar references.

Three Common Mistakes with Apostrophes

Apostrophes are responsible for some serious writing errors. Here are the three most common mistakes related to apostrophes:

(1) To show normal plurals.

  • three cat's wrong cross (should be "cats")
  • good idea's wrong cross (should be "ideas")
  • two video's wrong cross (should be "videos")

(2) Randomly before the letter "s."

  • He like's pies. wrong cross (should be "likes")
  • Jack agree's with you. wrong cross (should be "agrees")
  • Time fly's like an arrow. Fruit fly's like a banana. wrong cross (should be "flies")

(3) Using a contraction incorrectly.

  • She likes you're dress. wrong cross (should be "your")
  • I can see it's tail. wrong cross (should be "its")
  • They're parents live in Scotland. wrong cross (should be "their")

Use of Apostrophes Explained in Detail

This section explains when to use apostrophes in more detail and gives examples for each way apostrophes are used.

(1) Using Apostrophes for Possession

Apostrophes for Possession
Apostrophes are used to show possession. For example:
  • The dog's kennel correct tick
  • The dogs' kennel correct tick

Does the apostrophe go before or after the "s"?

The big question is whether to put the apostrophe before the "s" or after the "s." The basic rules are as follows:

The Basic Rules

The apostrophe goes before the "s" for a singular possessor:
  • one dog's kennel correct tick
It goes after the "s" for a plural possessor:
  • two dogs' kennel correct tick
There are exceptions to these rules, and they are covered below. However, here is a simple 100% rule that works for everything:

The 100% Rule: Everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor.

Write the word as you'd say it (e.g., "dogs kennel"), and then apply this rule. You get dog's for one dog, and dogs' for more than one. This rule works for everything, even the exceptions.
Keep in mind that, in the two examples above, "dog" and "dogs" are the possessors. The position of the apostrophe has nothing to do with "kennel." That word can be singular or plural. It makes no difference whatsoever to where the apostrophe goes. For example:
  • One dog's dinner correct tick
  • One dog's dinners correct tick
  • Two dogs' dinner correct tick
  • Two dogs' dinners correct tick
The apostrophe-placement ruling seems quite straightforward, but there are exceptions.

An exception to the rule: plural words that don't end "s"

The most notable exception is when the plural doesn't end in "s" (e.g., "children," "women," "people," "men"). These words have the apostrophe before the "s" (even though they're plural). For example:
  • children's toys correct tick
  • women's hat correct tick
  • (Here's another issue. It's not always about possession. This means a hat for women. Similarly, "Picasso's painting" is a painting by Picasso. He doesn't own it. Sometimes, it's about "possession" in the loosest terms.)
  • people's poet correct tick
  • men's sizes correct tick

Another exception to the rule: singular words that end "s"

Another quirk is that singular nouns ending "s" (e.g., "Wales," "Moses," "John Wells") form their possessive forms either by adding ' (just an apostrophe) or 's depending on how you (personally) say the possessive form. For example:
  • John Wells' report correct tick
  • (This is correct. It is used by those who would say "John Wells report" as opposed to "John Wellsiz report.")
  • John Wells's report correct tick
  • (This is also correct. It is used by those who would say "John Wellsiz report.")
Be aware that some style guides state you can't use the 's version for religious characters. So, if you're talking about the likes of "Jesus" or "Moses," you might want to opt for the Jesus' and Moses' versions as opposed to Jesus's and Moses's.

Are You Good at Possessive Apostrophes?

Here's a quick test.
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(2) Using Apostrophes in Time Expressions

Apostrophes in Time Expressions
Apostrophes can be used in time expressions (also called "temporal expressions") like "a day's pay" and "two weeks' notice."

The big question with these is where to put the apostrophe. The ruling is quite simple: the apostrophe goes before the "s" for a single unit of time (e.g., one day's pay) and after the "s" when it's more than one (e.g., two days' pay).

  • I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun. correct tick (Inventor Thomas Edison)
  • It's not worth it for just two minutes' pleasure.
It's not always about time. For example:
  • I live a stone's throw away. correct tick
Don't think you have to use an apostrophe every time you write "seconds," "minutes," "hours," "days," "weeks," "months," etc. Only use an apostrophe where the word "of" could have been used.
  • a year's insurance correct tick
  • (a year "of" insurance)
  • two weeks' holiday correct tick
  • (two weeks "of" holiday)
Read more on apostrophes used in time expressions

(3) Using Apostrophes to Replace Letters in Contractions

Apostrophes in Contractions
An apostrophe can be used to replace a letter or letters (e.g., "isn't," "can't"). The new word formed is called a contraction. Contractions are not usually used in formal correspondence.
  • When I was born I was so surprised I didn't talk for a year and a half. correct tick (Comedian Gracie Allen)
  • Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep. correct tick (Author Fran Lebowitz)
Contractions are most commonly used in informal writing to reflect how we speak. These two contractions are notorious grammar villains: it's and you're.

Read more on apostrophes replacing letters

(4) Using Apostrophes in Awkward Plurals

Apostrophes for Plurals
The first thing to say about this topic is that apostrophes are not normally used to show plurals, and lots of your readers will hate it if you use an apostrophe for this purpose. However, that said, there are times when it helps to use an apostrophe to show a plural. For example:
  • There are two i's in skiing. correct tick
  • You use too many but's in your writing. correct tick
Of course, there are other ways of writing these. For example:
  • There are two Is in skiing. correct tick
  • You use too many "but"s in your writing. correct tick
The bottom line is apostrophes can be used in this way and for good reason — the apostrophe version is usually neater and clearer. However, be aware that you run the risk of annoying a high proportion of your readers if you do it. Read more on apostrophes used to show unusual plurals.

Using Apostrophes Incorrectly with Plurals

Apostrophe Mistakes with Plurals
Don't add an apostrophe to a word just because the word ends with the letter "s." This is a common mistake, and it is a grammatical howler. (In other words, your readers will think you're a bit dim if you keep doing it.)

This mistake is most commonly seen when people form the plurals of nouns, but it happens with verbs too; e.g., He eat's pies. wrong cross

  • I like pig's. Dog's look up to us. Cat's look down on us. Pig's treat us as equal's. wrong cross
  • (These are all wrong.)
  • I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as
    equals. correct tick
  • A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it fly's out, you cannot catch it. wrong cross
  • (This mistake is sometimes made with verbs too. This should be "flies.")
  • Tomato's and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French; garlic makes it good. wrong cross
  • (This mistake is particularly common when forming the plural of a noun which ends in a vowel (e.g., video's wrong cross, banana's wrong cross). It should be "tomatoes" in this example.)
Read more on apostrophes used incorrectly with plurals.

Video Lesson

Here is a video summarizing the use of apostrophes: video lesson

Video on Possessive Apostrophes (A Neat Trick)

Here is a 3-minute video summarizing how to use possessive apostrophes: video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

An Infographic Explaining the History

This infographic explains the history behind the possessive apostrophe. It really helps!
Read more on apostrophes to show possession.
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.