What is an apostrophe? We use apostrophes for three major reasons, and whilst most people use them without even thinking about it, there are plenty of people who make mistakes with this punctuation mark. These mistakes are much more common than people realize, so this guide will take you through everything you need to know about apostrophes. From what they are, when to use them, and the common mistakes that we see people making accidentally. At the end, we’ll test your new knowledge with an apostrophe-based quiz that’ll highlight just how much you’ve learned and prevent you from making the common mistakes we’ll be covering throughout this guide!
What is an apostrophe? The symbol (‘) is called an apostrophe in the English language. It is an important punctuation mark which is often used incorrectly in English.
What is an Apostrophe?
An apostrophe is used to show that certain letters have been omitted from a word (contractions, i.e. she’s, it’s…). The apostrophe symbol can also be used to show the possessive form of a noun (possessive apostrophe, i.e. John’s books,…), in addition to indicating the plural form of lowercase letters.
An apostrophe is a punctuation mark that we use for one of three principal reasons:
- To show possession.
- To show contraction.
- To show plurality (for letters, numbers, and symbols).
Key Points to Remember
We use an apostrophe for one of three major reasons. To show possession, to show contraction, or to show plurality for letters, numbers, and symbols. There are certain nuances in using apostrophes that you have to be aware of, such as with ‘Mr. Roberts’ vs Mr. Roberts’s’ but if you stick to one style, then you won’t go wrong. With apostrophes, as with most things we cover in these guides, practice will make perfect, and the more you expose yourself to different writers using apostrophes, the better.
Below, we’ll show you what we mean by that in some more detail and provide you with some examples.
When to Use an Apostrophe
To Show Possession
When we use an apostrophe to show possession, we typically place the punctuation mark at the end of a noun followed by the letter ‘s’. This shows that whatever comes next belongs to the noun with the apostrophe. Here’s an example to make that clearer:
- The boy’s clothes were covered in mud. – Boy’s, with an apostrophe, shows that the clothes belong to the boy. So, we use an apostrophe and the letter ‘s’ with the noun ‘boy’, to show that the clothes that were covered in mud belong to him.
Sometimes, the noun that we are showing possession with already ends in the letter ‘s’. Here, different writers approach what to do differently. We’ll provide you with different ways to write it if, for example, we were writing about a character named Mr. Roberts. Here are the different ways that people might approach it:
- Mr. Roberts’ car had broken down. – Notice how in this case we do not use an additional ‘s’, we simply add an apostrophe to the end of Mr. Roberts to show possession. But that isn’t the only way to approach it.
- Mr. Roberts’s car had broken down. – Here we used an apostrophe and the additional ‘s’. Without a standard rule, writers are free to make their mind up about whether to add the additional ‘s’ after the apostrophe. Some establishments require a particular style, so if you are writing for a company it is best to check what they prefer, otherwise you’re free to pick a style that suits you.
*Please note, there is also a third way to approach this. Some writers would simply write the word how they would say it. So with Mr. Roberts they would be more likely to write is as ‘Mr. Roberts’ car’ because that would be how we would pronounce it. For a name like Mr. Jones, however, they may write it as ‘Mr. Jones’s car’ because we would typically pronounce it in that way. Again, it really is a decision for the writer unless there is a style that you must stick to for a particular reason, such as work.
To Show Contraction
This is the second most common way to use an apostrophe. When using an apostrophe to show contraction, we place an apostrophe within a word to show that we are omitting some letters of two separate words, and forming them into one. Here are some common examples that you have probably already used in your writing without thinking:
- don’t = do not
- can’t = can not
- I’ve = I have
- we’ve = we have
The list is endless, but you can understand the point. There are plenty of different words that we typically contract, the trick is knowing where the apostrophe goes. Unfortunately, there isn’t a hard and fast rule, so knowing how to use an apostrophe for contraction comes down to exposure. In the examples above, the contraction seems logical, because we omit part of the second word in all four cases, the ‘o’ from not in the first two examples, and the ‘ha’ from have in the second two. But this logic doesn’t always continue, for example:
- won’t = will not
Here, there isn’t a clear logic to the contraction, so again, knowing how to write certain contractions simply comes down to seeing other people use them correctly.
To Show Plurality (for Letters, Numbers, and Symbols)
Whilst some writers approach the rules surrounding apostrophes in slightly different ways, it is generally agreed upon that when we show that there are multiple letters, numbers, or symbols we use an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to avoid confusion. For example:
When Not to Use an Apostrophe
There are some cases where individuals use an apostrophe when it isn’t necessary or else use them inappropriately. These cases are relatively common, so we’ll look at some of the most common mistakes to help you avoid them yourself.
Common Apostrophe Mistakes
A regular noun is a noun that simply adds an ‘s’ or ‘es’ to the end to show plurality. In these cases, mistakes are common when trying to show plural possession. For example:
- Incorrect: The guy’s party was fun. – The guy’s suggests that it was just one guy whose party it was.
- Correct: The guys’ party was fun – The guys’ suggests that it was multiple guys hosting the party, i.e. we are showing plural possession.
Making a Noun Plural
The third apostrophe use we covered ‘to show plurality’ is likely the reason for this confusion. We only use an apostrophe to show plurality for letters, numbers, and symbols, never a noun.
- Incorrect: The car’s drove by quickly.
- Correct: The cars drove by quickly.
More than One Person Possesses it
Sometimes you may need to write a sentence in which more than one person possesses something. Here, only ever put the apostrophe and the ‘s’ to show possession after the second name.
- Incorrect: Kelly’s and June’s house wasn’t far away. – This suggests that Kelly and June live separately. If that were the case, the house would have to become houses to show that.
- Correct: Kelly and June’s house wasn’t far away. – This shows that both Kelly and June own the house.
Apostrophe Rules with Examples
Apostrophe Rules for Contractions
A contraction is a shortened version of the written and spoken forms of a word, syllable, or word group, created by omission of internal letters and sounds.
The apostrophe is used to show the contraction of words in a sentence.
- aren’t – are not
- can’t – cannot
- couldn’t – could not
- didn’t – did not
- doesn’t – does not
- don’t – do not
- hadn’t – had not
- hasn’t – has not
- haven’t – have not
- he’d – he had; he would
- he’ll – he will; he shall
- he’s – he is; he has
- I’d – I had; I would
- I’ll – I will; I shall
- I’m – I am
- I’ve – I have
- isn’t – is not
- let’s – let us
- mightn’t – might not
- mustn’t – must not
- shan’t – shall not
- she’d – she had; she would
- she’ll – she will; she shall
- she’s – she is; she has
- shouldn’t – should not
- that’s – that is; that has
- there’s – there is; there has
- they’d – they had; they would
- they’ll – they will; they shall
- they’re – they are
- they’ve – they have
- we’d – we had; we would
- we’re – we are
- we’ve – we have
- weren’t – were not
- what’ll – what will; what shall
- what’re – what are
- what’s – what is; what has
- what’ve – what have
- where’s – where is; where has
- who’s – who had; who would
- who’ll – who will; who shall
- who’re – who are
- who’s – who is; who has
- who’ve – who have
- won’t – will not
- wouldn’t – would not
- you’d – you had; you would
- you’ll – you will; you shall
- you’re – you are
- you’ve – you have
- It’s rain outside.
- I’ll be there.
- I haven’t met him before.
- I’m planning to write a book someday.
- She’s been working.
- Who’s at the door?
- They weren’t hungry, because they’d already eaten.
- I can’t believe it’s snowing again.
Apostrophe Rules for Possession (Possessive Apostrophe)
Apostrophe Before S
In most cases, we add an apostrophe before s for singular nouns to show possession. For example, dog owned by Jack -> Jack‘s dog, wallet belongs to Jim -> Jim‘s wallet, etc.
- The children’s room
- The men’s work
- The women’s club
- A ship’s captain
- A doctor’s patient
- A car’s engine
- The girl’s hands were chapped by the cold.
- The cat’s toy was missing.
- John’s attempts to solve the problem were rewarded.
Apostrophe Rules for Possession (Possessive Apostrophe Image)
Apostrophe After S
For plural nouns, we simply add an apostrophe after s except for those few plural nouns that do not end in s.
- Boys’ ball
- Babies’ shoes
- Lemons’ acidity
- Owls’ eyes
- Students’ bag
- Two girls’ dresses
- The tables’ legs were all wobbly and needed repair.
- Cherries’ stones can break your teeth if you are not careful.
- People are prepared to pay high prices for designers’ clothes.
We use an apostrophe and an –s to indicate the plural form of lowercase letters.
- You need to write your l’s more legibly.
Apostrophe (‘) Image
Below, we’ll put your new knowledge to the test. See if you think the following sentences are correct or incorrect, and if you think they’re incorrect, how would you change them?
- Sometimes when I write my letters, my as look like us.
- The girls’ dinner was delicious.
- Mr. Richards’ car can’t have been driving in that direction, I’d already seen it parked by his house.
Do you see the confusion when we don’t add an apostrophe and ‘s’ to the end of letters, numbers, and symbols. It should be:
- Sometimes when I write my letters, my a’s look like u’s.
We are showing plural possession of a regular noun. Writing it as ‘The girl’s dinner was delicious’ suggests only one girl made the dinner.
Mr. Richards’ could have been written as Mr. Richards’s too, of course, but it is perfectly correct the way we’ve written it. ‘Can’t’ is the correct contraction of can not, and ‘I’d’ is the correct contraction of I had.