Using English Apostrophes Correctly

The rules concerning the use of apostrophes in written English are very simple:

Use an apostrophe with contractions.

The apostrophe is placed where a letter or letters have been removed.

  • it’s instead of it is
  • I can’t instead of I cannot
  • I don’t instead of I do not
  • doesn’t instead of does not
  • ’tis instead of this is
  • you’d instead of you would/could/should
  • should’ve instead of should have 
  • rock ‘n’ roll or rock & roll instead of rock and roll

Note: Special care must be taken over the use of your and you’re as they sound the same but are used quite differently:

  • “your” is possessive as in “this is your pen”
  • “you’re” is short for you are as in “you’re coming over to my house”

Apostrophes are used to denote possession

To show possession with a singular noun, add an apostrophe plus the letter s.

  • the dog’s bone
  • the council’s logo
  • Jones’s bakery
  • a woman’s hat
  • the boss’s wife
  • Mrs. Chang’s house

Please note that the possessive form of it does not take an apostrophe any more than ours, yours or hers do

  • the bone is in its mouth

If there are two or more dogs, councils or Joneses in our example, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’:

  • the dogs’ bones
  •  the councils’ logos
  • Joneses’ bakeries

Regular nouns denoting possession are nouns that form their plurals by adding either the letter s or es (guy, guys; letter, letters; actress, actresses; etc.). To show plural possession, simply put an apostrophe after the s.

  • guys’ night out (guy + s + apostrophe)
  • two actresses’ roles (actress + es + apostrophe)

Irregular nouns denoting possession (child, nucleus, tooth, etc.) become plural by changing their spelling, sometimes becoming quite different words. You may find it helpful to write out the entire irregular plural noun before adding an apostrophe or an apostrophe + s.

  • two children’s hats (children + apostrophe + s)
  • the teeth’s roots

With a singular compound noun (for example, mother-in-law), show possession with an apostrophe + s at the end of the word.

  • my mother-in-law’s hat

If the compound noun (e.g., brother-in-law) is to be made plural, form the plural first (brothers-in-law), and then use the apostrophe + s.

  • my two brothers-in-law’s hats

If two people possess the same item, put the apostrophe + s after the second name only.

  • Cesar and Maribel’s home is constructed of redwood.

However, if one of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, use the possessive form for both.

  • Maribel’s and my home
  • his and Maribel’s home
  • Maribel’s and your home

Note: As the above examples demonstrate, when one of the co-owners is written as a pronoun, use possessive adjectives (my, your, her, our, their). Avoid possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, ours, theirs) in such constructions.

It should be mentioned that compound possessives are often clunky as well as confusing. For instance, a picture of her and Cesar’s house could refer to a photo of “her” in front of the house that Cesar owns or a photo of the house that she and Cesar co-own. Big difference. Such ambiguous sentences should just be rewritten.

In cases of separate rather than joint possession, use the possessive form for both.

  • Cesar’s and Maribel’s homes are both lovely. (They don’t own the homes jointly.)
  • Cesar and Maribel’s homes are both lovely. (The homes belong to both of them.)

Possessive Plurals and Proper Names ending in -s.

Things can get really confusing with the possessive plurals of proper names ending in s, such as Hastings and Jones.

If you’re the guest of the Ford family—the Fords—you’re the Fords’ guest (Ford + s + apostrophe). But what if it’s the Hastings family?

Most would call them the “Hastings.” But that would refer to a family named “Hasting.” If someone’s name ends in s, we must add -es for the plural. The plural of Hastings is Hastingses. The members of the Jones family are the Joneses.

To show possession, add an apostrophe.

  • the Hastingses’ dog (Hastings + es + apostrophe)
  • the Joneses’ car

Beware of false possessives, which often occur with nouns ending in s. Don’t add apostrophes to noun-derived adjectives ending in s. Close analysis is the best guide.

In the sentence, “We enjoyed the New Orleans’ cuisine,” the word the makes no sense unless New Orleans is being used as an adjective to describe cuisine. In English, nouns frequently become adjectives. Adjectives rarely if ever take apostrophes.

  • I like that Beatles song.
  • He’s a United States citizen.

Beware of nouns ending in y; do not show possession by changing the -y of a signular noun to -ies.

  • the company’s policy (singular)
  • three companies’ policies (plural)

Names and other proper nouns ending in y become plural simply by adding an s. They do not form their plurals with an apostrophe, or by changing the y to ies.

  • The Flannerys are coming over. (Flannerys = plural)
  • The Flannerys’ house was robbed. (Flannerys’ = possession)

Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to create plurals!

Common examples of such abuse (all seen in real life!) are:

  • “Banana’s for sale,” which of course should be written “Bananas for sale”
  • “Menu’s printed to order,” which should be written “Menus printed to order”
  • “MOT’s at this garage,” which should be written “MOTs at this garage”
  • “1000’s of bargains here!.” which should be written “1000s of bargains here!”
  • “New CD’s just in!,” which should be written “New CDs just in!”
  • “Buy your Xmas tree’s here!,” which should be written “Buy your Xmas trees here!”

In special cases, such as when forming a plural of a word that is not normally a noun, some writers add an apostrophe for clarity. For example, “Here are some do’s and don’ts.”  In that sentence, the verb do is used as a plural noun, and the apostrophe was added because the writer felt that dos was confusing. Not all writers agree; some see no problem with dos and don’ts. However, with single lowercase letters, it is advisable to use apostrophes, for example, “My a’s look like u’s.”

There are various approaches to plurals for abbreviations, single letters, and numerals.

Many writers and editors prefer an apostrophe after single capitalized letters.

  • I made straight A’s.

With groups of two or more capital letters, apostrophes seem less necessary.

  • There are two new MPs on the base.
  • He learned his ABCs.
  • She consulted with three M.D.s. OR She consulted with three M.D.’s.
  • Some write M.D.’s to give the s separation from the second period.

Single-digit numbers are usually spelled out, but when they aren’t, you are just as likely to see 2s and 3s as 2’s and 3’s. With double digits and above, many (but not everyone) regard the apostrophe as superfluous: I scored in the high 90s.

There are different schools of thought about years and decades. The following examples are all in widespread use:

  • the 1990s
  • the 1990’s
  • the ’90s
  • the 90’s

Amounts of time or money are sometimes used as possessive adjectives that require apostrophes.

  • three days’ leave
  • my two cents’ worth

When an apostrophe comes before a word or number, take care that it’s truly an apostrophe (’) rather than a single quotation mark (‘).

  • Twas the night before Christmas.
  • I voted in ’08.

The personal pronouns hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, and the pronoun oneself never take an apostrophe.

  • Feed a horse grain. It’s better for its health.
  • Whose glasses are these?
  • Talking to oneself in public is odd.