How to Use Apostrophes

In written English, the way we generally express possession is by adding an apostrophe and an “s” to a noun. Thus, the bicycle that belongs to Rico would be “Rico’s bicycle.” If Tammy has a new boyfriend named Mitch, then Mitch would be “Tammy’s boyfriend.”

Possession is to be understood broadly, not limited to physical objects or people. For instance, “Yvette’s guilt,” “Albert’s habit of arriving late,” or “Roger Bannister’s setting of a new world record” all call for an apostrophe and an “s.”

Things can get a little complicated with the possessive apostrophe, so it is worth noting some exceptions, nuances and special rules.

Possessive personal pronouns (my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, their, theirs) do not take an apostrophe, even if they happen to end in “s.” If we are writing about Betty, and we want to refer to the tennis racket she owns, we would write “her tennis racket,” or “the tennis racket of hers.” It would not be correct to write “her’s tennis racket” (or “she’s tennis racket” for that matter) or “the tennis racket of her’s.”

“Its” can be especially tricky. If you are using it to indicate possession, write it as “its.” If you are using it as a contraction of “it is” (see contractions below), write it as “it’s.” Thus:

“The aardvark ate its own head” and “It’s surprising how often aardvarks eat their own heads.”

Finally, be careful using the possessive apostrophe with nouns that already end in “s.” If the noun is singular, add an apostrophe and an “s” as always. If the noun is plural, add only the apostrophe. Consider these examples:

  • Jim Booth’s tuxedo.
  • Jim Strauss’s tuxedo.
  • The Booths’ family tree.
  • The Strausses’ family tree.
  • The mass’s most inspirational moment.
  • The masses’ fury.
  • The nanny’s experience.
  • The nannies’ experience.

As a matter of convention, certain proper names that end in “s” are exceptions that take an apostrophe without another “s” to indicate possession. Most notably these include figures from the Bible and from the ancient world. So:

  • Jesus’ disciples.
  • Moses’ concern.
  • Socrates’ idea.
  • Zeus’ thunderbolts.

In fact, it has become increasingly common to drop the extra possessive “s” for all names that end in “s” rather than just these special cases, so this can be considered a gray area in language. Many people now would write “Jim Strauss’ tuxedo” instead of “Jim Strauss’s tuxedo.”

The Use of Apostrophes in Contractions

In a contraction, an apostrophe is used where a letter has been deleted, usually when two words are combined into one. Contractions are generally considered to only be appropriate in informal written English, but there are still right and wrong ways to write them. For example:

  • “don’t” for “do not”: The space between “do” and “not” is deleted, and the “o” in “not” is replaced with an apostrophe.
  • “I’m” for “I am”: The space between “I” and “am” is deleted, and the “a” in “am” is replaced with an apostrophe.
  • “he’s” for “he is”: The space between “he” and “is” is deleted, and the “i” in “is” is replaced with an apostrophe.
  • Some contractions are irregular. For instance:
  • “won’t for “will not”: Not only is the space between “will” and “not” deleted, but the spelling of “will” is changed to “wo” (due to the difficulty of pronouncing “willn’t” as a one-syllable word). However, the apostrophe still replaces the missing “o” in “not.”

Single word contractions are most often used in poetry. For example:

  • “o’er” for “over”: The “v” is replaced with an apostrophe.
  • “e’er” for “ever”: The “v” is replaced with an apostrophe.

Sometimes an apostrophe is used to replace a number, or multiple numbers, instead of a letter, most notably when referring to decades:

“Jimi Hendrix was one of the iconic figures of the ’60s.” (Note that it is “’60s” and not “60’s.” You place the apostrophe where you have deleted one or more letters or numbers. In going from “1960s” to “’60s,” you do not delete anything between the “0” and the “s,” so there is no need to place an apostrophe there. You do, however, delete the “1” and the “9,” so that is where you need to put an apostrophe.)

Do Not Use Apostrophes to Pluralize a Word

Finally, an error that for some reason has become extremely common in recent years is to add an unnecessary apostrophe when pluralizing a word with an “s.” Do not fall into this habit, no matter how often you see things written this way:

  • “Orange’s are two for a dollar.” [Incorrect. Should be “Oranges are two for a dollar.”]
  • “Mr. Maxwell took his cat’s to the vet.” [Incorrect. Should be “Mr. Maxwell took his cats to the vet.”]
  • “Home’s in the neighborhood have tripled in value.” [Incorrect. Should be “Homes in the neighborhood have tripled in value.”]

To make a word plural with an apostrophe and an “s” is simply incorrect. The only possible exception is when you are pluralizing a single letter, such as “There are two m’s in ‘Sammy.’” But even here this usage is dying out and it is now considered preferable to put quotation marks around the single letter instead, (so “m”s, without an apostrophe).