How to Use Apostrophes

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The rules for apostrophes vary with the type of word. Learn where to put apostrophes so that your writing is clear and correct. In short, apostrophes are frequently used to indicate possession and in contractions, but never to pluralize.

Never use an apostrophe to indicate a plural. The wrong use of an apostrophe to form the plural is called the greengrocer's apostrophe, since grocers are often the worst (or at least the most visible) offenders. If you have more than one apple, then write apples, not apple's. If you cannot replace the word with "his," "her," "their", or "its" and if it isn't a contraction, then an apostrophe should not be used.

  • People often forget the rules when a word ends in a vowel, such as the word "mango." Many people write "mango's" instead of "mangos" or "mangoes".
  • An exception to this use is in the case of making a single letter plural. Therefore, Why are there so many i's in the word "indivisibility"? is correct. This is simply for clarity reasons, so the reader does not mistake it for the word "is." However, in modern usage, the preference is to avoid inserting an apostrophe and instead surround the single letter in quotation marks before pluralizing it: Why are there so many "I"s in the word "indivisibility"?
  • Apostrophes are never used in plurals, no matter what the personal preference is. "Do's and don't's" is wrong; the correct form is "dos and don'ts".
  • Making an exception for numbers and abbreviations is not current practice. MLA guidelines suggest that no apostrophe is needed following numbers (as when naming a decade). "I bought many CD's in the 1990's." is wrong; the correct form is "I bought many CDs in the 1990s."

Use apostrophes to indicate possession. There are two basic methods that make use of an apostrophe in constructing the possessive. Most words use an apostrophe followed by an "s" at the end of the word, although many situations require simply an apostrophe.

  • Place an apostrophe before the "s" when you are indicating a singular possessive.

    • "Jacob's shoes are very cool." The shoes belong to Jacob (singular: one person).
    • "I found the dog's old bone buried in the backyard." The bone belongs to the dog (singular: a single dog).
  • Place an apostrophe after the "s" when you are dealing with a possessive plural case that has an "s" at the end (e.g., book to books, tree to trees). But if the word is plural without an "s" at the end, this rule does not apply; add an apostrophe and an "s" as if the word were singular.

    • "Look at all of the sailors' boats!" The boats belong to the sailors (plural: there is more than one sailor).
    • "The children's dresses were pink and frilly." The dresses belong to the children, but since the word children is already plural without having to add an "s" at the end, this is an exception.

Use apostrophes in contractions. Sometimes, especially in informal writing, apostrophes are used to indicate one or more missing letters. For example, the word "don't" is short for "do not"; other examples include "isn't," "wouldn't," and "can't." Contractions can also be made with the verbs "is," "has," and "have." For example, we can write "She's going to school" instead of "She is going to school"; or "He's lost the game" instead of "He has lost the game." A similar usage can be found in the notation of calendar years, as in '07. In this case, the apostrophe appears in the spot where the missing numbers would have been (before the number, not after as in 07').

Be aware of the its/it's trap. Use an apostrophe with the word "it" only when you want to indicate a contraction for "it is" or "it has." It is a pronoun, and pronouns have their own possessive form that does not use an apostrophe. For example, "That noise? It's just the dog eating its bone." This may seem confusing, but it follows the same pattern as other possessive pronouns: his, hers, its, yours, ours, theirs.

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Tips

  • For singular names ending in "s," the Chicago Manual of Style adds an "s" after the apostrophe, as in "Charles's bike." If your work or assignment requires you to adhere to one convention or another, then do so. Otherwise, either form is acceptable so long as it is consistent throughout a single piece of written work.
  • Chicago Manual of Style also allows possessives of Jesus and Moses to be written Jesus' and Moses'. But they are the exception.
  • "Apple's 89¢ a pound," literally means that "apple" owns "89¢ a pound" (the possessive) or "Apple is 89¢ a pound" (a contraction).
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a very short and handy guide to writing and punctuation. Keep a copy of this book nearby when you're writing and refer to it if you're unsure about usage.
  • If you want to write about a party given by Luke and Ashley Smart and all their children, write "the Smarts' party" (Smarts is a plural, then add the possessive apostrophe).
  • If you have trouble applying the rules for a possessive, rephrase the sentence to use "of" and place the apostrophe after the word in question. For instance: "Look at all of the sailors' boats!" becomes "Look at all of the boats of the sailors" and you can place the apostrophe after "sailors" to make "sailors'". Or, "The children's dresses were pink and frilly." becomes "The dresses of the children..." and so the apostrophe goes after "children" to make "children's".
  • If ever in doubt, always remember that apostrophes are almost always used in nouns to show possession. Avoid using apostrophes for anything else.


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