Apostrophes – Definition, Rules & Examples

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Apostrophes-Definition

Apostrophes – the hardest punctuation mark in the English language. But why are apostrophes so confusing to so many? And is it possible to learn to use them correctly?

Read our guide for the answers to these questions and more, and learn to apostrophize with confidence.

Apostrophes – In a Nutshell

Although the rules seem endless and sometimes contradictory, the use of apostrophes can be summarized with two basic functions:

  • to show possession
  • as a contraction

Definition: Apostrophes

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark used to denote possession or to replace letters or numerals.1 In terms of appearance, there are two different types of apostrophe typefaces, smart (‘ ’) or straight (‘ ‘), but their usage is the same. Smart apostrophes are usually the default on keyboards and are the preferred option of publishers.

Possessive apostrophes with singular nouns

The mark ’s in English is affixed following a common name or a proper name to express possession. In addition, the apostrophe before the s is governed by a few rules, especially when placed after a word in the plural.

Some possessive pronouns end on an -s e.g., yours, hers, his, and its. In this case, no apostrophes are used.

Example:

With apostrophe No apostrophe
• Chloe's phone is the latest model.
• I forgot the dog's lead.
• The phone is hers
• Did you forget its lead?

Possessive apostrophes with plural nouns

To denote possession when the possessor is a plural noun and ends on -s, the apostrophe is added at the end of the noun.

Example:

  • The teachers’ room is on the third floor.
  • My parents’ house is in Wales.
  • He refused the clients’ requests.
  • Six of the ladies’ handbags were stolen.

This rule is not valid for words whose plural does not end on -s.

Example:

  • Man – Men
  • Woman – Women,
  • Foot – Feet
  • Tooth – Teeth
  • Child – Children

In these cases, you add ’s at the end of the word.

  • Men’s
  • Women’s
  • Feet’s
  • Teeth’s
  • Children’s

When the possessor is a proper noun ending on -s, you can choose to append an ’s to it, in which case one will add the sound /z/ at the end of the noun or simply an apostrophe.

Example:

  • I took James’s glasses by mistake.
  • I took James’ glasses by mistake.

Apostrophes and possessive pronouns

Possessive pronouns are the exception to the rule. They indicate ownership of something, for example, mine, yours, its, and theirs.

It is incorrect to use an apostrophe with a possessive pronoun; however, there is an exception to the rule – the possessive ‘one’s’.

A letter ending, ‘Yours sincerely’ should never have an apostrophe and ‘it’s’ should only have one when indicating the contraction ‘it is’.

Sounds confusing? It is, but the rule of thumb regarding possessive pronouns is to ask yourself if the apostrophe replaces a letter. If it doesn’t, don’t use it.

Apostrophes plural single possession

Apostrophes and joint possession

An apostrophe is required to show joint possession when a noun follows another noun. To show joint possession, you should only use an apostrophe with the last noun; to show individual possession, it is necessary to make all nouns possessive.

Example:

Joint possession Individual possession
Have you seen Pat and Clive's new puppy? Amelie's and Dave's hopes for the future couldn't be more different.

Apostrophes and contractions

The apostrophe is often used in the English language to form contractions or shortened versions of full words.

The contraction of words can be used in writing everyday day or colloquial language.2

Here are some common contractions:

  • Not = -n’t
  • Do not = Don’t
  • Would not = Wouldn’t
  • Will not = Won’t

 

  • And = ‘n’ (Used in particular with words conventionally placed together)
  • -ing = -in’ ** (Very informal)
  • Have = -‘ve
  • Old = ol’ * (Older)
  • Of = o’ * (Informal, except with “o’clock”)
  • Let us = let’s
  • Will / shall = -’ll
  • Them = ’em ** (Very informal)
  • Would / had = -‘d

Apostrophes to form plurals

As a general guideline, you should never use an apostrophe when writing plural forms.

Example:

The things that shops are selling are…

Ice creams, pizzas, coffees, and flowers.

Ice creams’s, pizzas’s, coffee’s, and flower’s.

Possessive pronouns vs. contractions

The following pronouns show possession and never require an apostrophe: hers, his, its, ours, theirs, whose, yours.

An apostrophe is used with a pronoun; it always indicates a contraction.3

Contractions show the omission of letters when two words are combined.

Examples:

  • I am – I’m
  • Did not – Didn’t
  • Who is – Who’s
  • We are – We’re
  • They are – They’re

In UK English, using an apostrophe to pluralize dates is also incorrect.

Example:

She loved the music of the 1970s.

FAQs

  • Smart apostrophe typeface: ‘ ’
  • Straight apostrophe typeface:‘   

The apostrophe is used in three ways:

  • to form possessive nouns
  • to show the omission of letters
  • to indicate plurals of letters, numbers, and symbols

​Do not ​use apostrophes to form possessive ​pronouns ​(i.e. ​his​/​her ​computer) or ​noun ​plurals that are not possessive.

It’s often misunderstood that the plural noun only needs an apostrophe in case of possession. For example:

  • Apple’s for sale.
  • Apples for sale.

“It’s” is misused when there is no contraction. For example:

  • The car is broken, it’s number is damaged.
  • The car is broken, its number is damaged.

Sources

1 Ross, Britney. “Apostrophe Rules.” Grammarly. February 21, 2022. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/apostrophe/.

2 The Punctuation Guide. “Apostrophe.” Accessed September 05, 2022. https://www.thepunctuationguide.com/apostrophe.html.

3 Nicolas, Alvin. “Apostrophes Rules.” Research Prospect. August 17, 2021. https://www.researchprospect.com/apostrophes-rules/.