The Apostrophe – Shouldn’t Cause a Catastrophe!

What is an Apostrophe?

An apostrophe is a punctuation mark that looks like this:  ’ (sort of half of a quote)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word apostrophe comes from the Greek apostrophes, meaning “turning away” (to one in particular).  An apostrophe symbolizes letters that have been “turned away”, or discarded, in order to make a word shorter or easier to pronounce.

Using the apostrophe for indicating omissions in contracted words

Contractions - the shortening of two words by adding them together

This is a very common element of grammar, especially in spoken English.  However, in formal writing it is better to use the longer version, or the original two words.


    * You + are = you’re
    * I + am = I’m
    * Will + not = won’t

Apostrophes are also used to shorten the names of dates (decades):

    * the 1960’s  =  the 60’s

Right or wrong?

The Apostrophes uses ar'ent always clear-cut.

Wrong! In the above example sentence the words (are not) should be joined together (contracted) into (aren't), as the letter o in not is dropped and replaced by an apostrophe which "glues" are and not together.

If you want to know more, read the punctuation rules for indicating omissions below.
If you are ready to read about other uses of the apostrophe, click here for the index.

The Punctuation Rules for Indicating Omissions in Contracted Words

1. When two words join together and a letter is dropped, an apostrophe is used to fill in for a dropped letter, as in the following examples:


  • I'm a writer, I'm not a doctor. (I am)
  • He's the best writer here but he doesn't talk a lot. (He is, does not)
  • She isn't the writer of this book (is not)
  • You're going to write an essay today. (You are)
  • They're writing short stories this semester. (They are)
  • We've had a few problems using apostrophes. (We have)
  • I'll start writing this paper tomorrow. (I will)
  • Who's the writer of this wonderful story? (Who is)
  • Let's finish reviewing apostrophe usage. (Let us)

Pay attention!

1. am does not contract with not ( amn't is wrong!)

2. Do not confuse the following contractions with similar words:
- it's (contraction for it is, it has) with its (possessive determiner/pronoun, meaning belonging to it).
- they're (contraction for they are) with their (possessive determiner) and there (place).
- who's (contraction for who is) with whose (question word about possession).
- you're (contraction for you are) with your (possessive determiner).
It's a great piece of writing. Its style is very clear.
Who's the writer whose books are now best sellers.

3. The contraction o'clock is required for writing (replacing the archaic expression of the clock).

4. Use contractions less in formal writing contexts, such as serious argumentative essays, formal letters of complaint, business writing or academic journals. This is because such contexts require the full standard language style.

5. Use contractions with apostrophes more in informal writing contexts which simulate spoken language, such as letters to friends and postcards, or when writing dialogs. Since these contractions derive from users connecting words spoken at a fast pace, they are more common in these contexts, where they are accepted, as without them the writing may seem unnatural or even condescending.

6. Nevertheless, you should not overuse apostrophes even informally and write:
You shouldn't've said that.
Double apostrophe for (You should not have said that)
I'd let you do it.
Ambiguous usage (I'd) may be (I would) or (I had)

Using the apostrophe for indicating possessives

Possessives - indicating ownership

Right or wrong?
The childrens ball fell into the two neighbor's yard.

Wrong ! In the above example sentence "childrens" should be written with an apostrophe (children's), stating "of the children", meaning that the ball belongs to the children. In addition, as there are two neighbors as owners of the yard, (neighbor's) should express possession as (neighbors').

If you want to know more, read the punctuation rules for indicating possessives below.

The Punctuation Rules for Indicating Possessives

Possession means that some "property" (a ball) belongs or is in close relationship to an "owner" (the children), which are usually described by nouns. Use the apostrophe to show what belongs to whom.

1. Add 's to singular nouns to show they are the "owners."
The author's books appeared in Mr. Smith's review article.

Note: If the singular owner already ends with s, you can either add 's or only an apostrophe. At WhiteSmoke, we prefer the first option but if you chose otherwise, you must be consistent with the option you choose

  • Mr. Williams's dog ate Chris's writing assignment. Or
  • Mr. Williams' dog ate Chris' writing assignment.

2. Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns to show they are the "owners."
The Williams' dog ate all the students' writing assignment.

Note: If the plural nouns does not end in s, add 's to show they are the owners.
The Children's dog ate the people's shoes.

3. Add 's to the last word in compound words and phrases:

  • The basketball player's performance was incredible.
  • His father-in-law's business is very successful.

4. Add 's to each "owner" to show that each of them owns a "property" separately.
Dan's and Sharon's writing assignments are the best in the class.
(Two different assignments written by two different people)

5. Add 's to the last "owner" in a group to show that the group owns a "property" jointly.
Dan and Sharon's writing assignment is the best in class.
    (One assignment written by two people together).

Pay attention!
1. The Apostrophe does not create possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, its, hers, ours, theirs).
We need two cars. Let's take ours and hers.

2. You may prefer using the preposition "of" instead of the apostrophe to show possession when the owner is described using a long phrase.
The new German writing instructor's books are best seller. Or
The Books of the new German writing instructor are best sellers.

The following nouns are possessive and do not require apostrophes:

yours        his        hers        ours        theirs        whose
Its / It’s : WHAT is the Difference?!

The difference between its and it’s is a trap that even skilled writers fall into, time and time again.

Its = possessive  ;  Look at that bus – its windows are so dirty!
It’s = contraction  ;  it is or it has

A good tip to remember when to use the apostrophe and when not to, with its/it’s:  When you’re trying to use the possessive (to say that someone or something owns something else), do NOT use the apostrophe – just like there is no apostrophe in yours, his, hers, etc.  And the apostrophe in it’s stands for the letters that are missing (since apostrophes usually stand for letters “turned away”, like we read at the top of this article).

Using the apostrophe for indicating plurals

Right or wrong?
The student's had a variety of grades but the most were 70s or 90s.

Right and Wrong! In the above example sentence the plural word (student's) does not require an apostrophe as plurals normally do not take an apostrophe. The plurals of numbers, however, can be written with an apostrophe or without.

If you want to know more, read the punctuation rules for indicating plurals below.

The Punctuation Rules for Indicating Plurals with the Apostrophe

Even though the apostrophe is not used to make plural nouns in English, it is still used to pluralize the following elements:

1. Plural of letters meant as letters, both in upper case and in lower case.
Mississippi has lots of S's in it. (Option: underline the letter)
Mississippi has lots of s's in it.

2. Plural of numbers to avoid ambiguity.
The binary system uses 0's and 1's. (Otherwise could look like Os and Is).

3. In the following cases, do not use an apostrophe, unless you believe the reader may not find your writing clear:
-Plurals of letters meant as words
The students got all Cs in their writing assignments.
     (C is here a word for grade level)

-Plurals of words meant as words
No ifs or buts! (No apostrophes)
The do's and the don'ts of apostrophe usage. (Without apostrophes may seem unclear)

-Plural of numbers
This airliner only uses 747s.

-Plural of years
Berlin had a lively atmosphere during the 1920s.

-Plurals of symbols
What do all these @s mean?