(ordered by seriousness) ESL Vocabulary Lists Parts of Speech Lists A-Z Idioms and Proverbs Tests and Games Top Tip Install a grammar checker
for your browser
The Rules for Using ApostrophesApostrophes are used to show possession (e.g., dog's dinner), in time expressions (e.g., 2 years' pay), in contractions (e.g., isn't) and, on rare occasions, to show plurals (Z's and 2's).
The apostrophe is a real grammar villain. It is responsible for lots of serious writing errors. In fact, of all the punctuation marks, the apostrophe is the one with most potential to damage your credibility because your readers will expect you to know how to use apostrophes.
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)
- Printable Test
Four Ways to Use ApostrophesThere are four ways to use apostrophes:
(1) To show possession.
- a dog's kennel
- our boys' bedroom
(2) To write time expressions.
- a day's pay
- two weeks' holiday
(3) To replace letters in contractions.
(4) To show awkward plurals.
- There are three big if's.
- Hawaii has two i's.
Beware! Showing an awkward plural with an apostrophe is disliked by many writers, but it is often efficient. The practice of showing an awkward plural with an apostrophe is condoned by all the leading grammar references.
Three Common Mistakes with ApostrophesApostrophes 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 (should be "cats")
- two video's (should be "videos")
(2) Randomly before the letter "s."
- He like's pies. (should be "likes")
- Time fly's like an arrow. Fruit fly's like a banana. (should be "flies")
(3) Using a contraction incorrectly.
- She likes you're dress. (should be "your")
- I can see it's tail. (should be "its")
Use of Apostrophes Explained in DetailThis section explains when to use apostrophes in more detail and gives examples for each way apostrophes are used.
(1) Using Apostrophes for Possession
- The dog's kennel
- The dogs' kennel
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:
- One dog's dinner
- One dog's dinners
- Two dogs' dinner
- Two dogs' dinners
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
- women's hat (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
- men's sizes
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 (This is correct. It is used by those who would say "John Wells report" as opposed to "John Wellsiz report.")
- John Wells's report (This is also correct. It is used by those who would say "John Wellsiz report.")
Are You Good at Possessive Apostrophes?Here's a quick test.
(2) Using Apostrophes in Time Expressions
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. (Inventor Thomas Edison)
- It's not worth it for just two minutes' pleasure.
- I live a stone's throw away.
- a year's insurance (a year "of" insurance)
- two weeks' holiday (two weeks "of" holiday)
(3) Using Apostrophes to Replace Letters in Contractions
- When I was born I was so surprised I didn't talk for a year and a half. (Comedian Gracie Allen)
- Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep. (Author Fran Lebowitz)
Read more on apostrophes replacing letters
(4) Using Apostrophes in Awkward Plurals
- There are two i's in skiing.
- You use too many but's in your writing.
- There are two Is in skiing.
- You use too many "but"s in your writing.
Using Apostrophes Incorrectly with Plurals
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.
- I like pig's. Dog's look up to us. Cat's look down on us. Pig's treat us as equal's. (These are all wrong.)
- I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as
- A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it fly's out, you cannot catch it. (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. (This mistake is particularly common when forming the plural of a noun which ends in a vowel (e.g., video's , banana's ). It should be "tomatoes" in this example.)
Video on Possessive Apostrophes (A Neat Trick)Here is a short video summarizing how to use possessive apostrophes:
An Infographic Explaining the HistoryThis infographic explains the history behind the possessive apostrophe. It really helps!
Help Us Improve Grammar Monster
- Do you disagree with something on this page?
- Did you spot a typo?
Find Us Quicker!
- When using a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing), you will find Grammar Monster quicker if you add #gm to your search term.