The proper use of the apostrophe
The apostrophe may be the most abused punctuation mark in the English language. A quick glance at street signs, advertisements, and store marquees will demonstrate that almost no one seems to know how to use this mark properly.
The apostrophe has two, and only two, uses: to show possession and to indicate the omission of letters or numbers. To further illustrate this point, let us examine some of the rules that dictate when apostrophes should be used and where they should be placed in a word.
Possessive common nouns are common nouns or pronouns that own other nouns. Apostrophes are used to indicate this possession in the following ways:
- If the noun does not end in -s (in most cases this means it is singular), add -'s.
Here are two examples:
The bike's handlebars were bent in the crash.
The boy's sister traveled by bus to meet us.
- If the noun is singular and ends in -s, add -'s, as in the following examples:
My boss's job at the bank was eliminated due to budget cuts.
The class's average grade was impressive.
- If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe.
The clowns' shoes protruded from the windows of the Volkswagen.
Both bananas' peels had turned brown.
- If the noun is plural and does not end in -s, add -'s.
The children's play received a standing ovation.
The geese's precise formation in the sky impressed the pedestrians.
Some words or phrases are awkward to pronounce when the apostrophe is added ("geese's precise formation," for example). An author always has the option of rewriting the sentence to avoid this problem ("The precise formation of the geese...").
- If multiple nouns jointly own another noun, use an apostrophe only on the final noun listed. In this sentence, one car belongs to both the man and the woman.
The man and woman's car was badly damaged.
- If multiple nouns each possess another noun individually, each noun should have an apostrophe. In this sentence, there are two separate motivations, each owned by a different person.
The student's and the teacher's motivations were in conflict.
- If a compound noun owns another noun, add the apostrophe only to the last element.
My sister-in-law's love of shopping knows no limits.
The president-elect's agenda proposed no major policy changes.
- If an indefinite pronoun (a noun that refers to no specific person or thing) owns a noun, add -'s.
Someone's car is parked in the loading zone.
Does anybody's key fit this lock?
Proper nouns and apostrophes
Possessive proper nouns are the capitalized names of specific persons, places, or things. We recommend following the same rules for apostrophe use on proper nouns as you would on common nouns. For example:
- If the name does not end in -s, add -'s.
Sally's hair was blond and curly.
The Boston Globe's editorial page is popular.
- If the name ends in -s and the pronunciation is not terribly awkward, add -'s.
Robert Burns's poetry is difficult to understand.
Charles Dickens's novels contain an astonishing number of characters.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course. One common deviation occurs when only an apostrophe is added to proper nouns that end in -s: Jesus, Moses, and Greek names of more than one syllable ending in -es.
In Sunday school, we studied Jesus' nativity and Moses' parting of the Red Sea.
Sophocles' plays make one wonder what kind of relationship he had with his parents.
Contractions should not confuse ESL writers
Contractions are shortened versions of words or phrases typically limited to casual speech or writing. Avoid the use of contractions in formal and professional writing. When writing a contraction, remember that an apostrophe marks the place where letters have been omitted. For example:
Don't forget to vote! (Don't is a contraction of do not; the o in not has been omitted.)
I'm so sick of this cold weather. (I'm is a contraction of I am; the a in am has been omitted.)
An apostrophe is also used to indicate the omission of the first two digits of a year or years.
The members of the class of '98 have all gone on to be successful.
The pre-Depression era of the '20s was a time of social change and material excess.
When NOT to use an apostrophe
The most common apostrophe error is the addition of an apostrophe where one is not needed. We have found apostrophes in some pretty strange places. The following are some of the most frequently made errors:
- Do not use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns whose, ours, yours, his, hers, its, or theirs.
- Do not use an apostrophe in nouns that are plural but not possessive, such as CDs, 1000s, or 1960s.
- Do not use an apostrophe in verbs. Apostrophes sometimes show up in verbs that end in -s, such as marks, sees, or finds.
Some apostrophe mistakes involve the confusion of two words that sound the same but have different meanings.
- Confusion of its and it's. Its is a possessive pronoun, while it's is a contraction of it is.
The dog pulled on its leash.
I just realized it's time to go!
- Confusion of your and you're. Your is a possessive pronoun, while you're is a contraction of you are.
Don't forget your umbrella.
You're the worst dancer I've ever seen.
- Confusion of whose and who's. Whose is a possessive pronoun, while who's is a contraction of who is.
Whose turn is it to take out the trash?
I wonder who's going to play Hamlet.
When in doubt over whether to use an apostrophe, think about the word's (or words') meaning. Does this noun own something? Are two separate words being combined into one contraction?
If you're in the process of learning English, make sure your apostrophes—and other punctuation marks—are in the right place with Scribendi's English editing services.