When to Use an Apostrophe: The Rules Made Easy
Apostrophes have been evading consensus since they were first used in the 1500s to indicate omitted letters. Later, printers started using them for possessives. Today, apostrophes have a few important functions, but the rules can get tricky - even for experienced writers.
Here’s the short answer to “when should I use apostrophes?”:
To replace letters and numbers (you’re, the ‘30s)
To show possession (the dog’s banana)
To avoid confusing readers (dot your i’s)
A quick note on style guides: if you follow a specific one in your writing, like the Associated Press or The New York Times - always check it to be sure. Some guides have their own rules for some very specific apostrophe conundrums, like Mr. Jones’ dog, A’s, and do’s and don’ts.
Apostrophes are tiny punctuation marks, but they can have a huge impact. The rules can be confusing sometimes, so if you still find yourself mouthing “it is” to yourself when writing “it’s” - you’re in good company.
Here are the do’s and don’ts of using apostrophes.
Do: Use apostrophes in contractions
Apostrophes usually take the place of omitted letters and numbers in contractions: can’t instead of cannot, ’30s instead of 1930s.
A contraction is a shortened version of a word or group of words: Some letters are omitted and replaced by an apostrophe (it is → it’s). Contractions can also be used to convey a style of speech where someone omits a sound when speaking (“You talkin’ to me?”).
Contractions make your writing more conversational and casual, so don’t use them in formal writing. (One rare exception: use o’clock, the contraction for “of the clock”.)
Examples of common contractions
Cannot → Can't
Will not → Won't
You all → Y'all
Should not → Shouldn't
Would not → Wouldn't
I have → I've
Who is → Who's
It was → 'Twas
Do: Use apostrophes for possessive nouns
When it comes to apostrophes and possessive nouns, the rules change depending on the specific type of noun.
01. Singular nouns
Add apostrophe + s to the end of the noun:
The dog’s toy was behind the couch.
The boss’s dog made a mess.
A week’s worth.
Exception: Some style guides, like the AP Stylebook, say that if the next word starts with an ‘s’, use an apostrophe only: The boss’ sandwich was thrown out.
02. Plural nouns
Add an apostrophe to the end of the noun:
The dogs’ fur was muddy after their impromptu swim.
This rule also applies for plural nouns in phrases like:
Two cents’ worth (= worth of two cents)
Two weeks’ notice (= notice of two weeks)
03. Plural nouns that do not end in ‘s’
Add apostrophe + s to the end of the noun:
The children’s tree house was finally built, and the dog loved it.
04. Singular proper nouns that end in ‘s’
Style guides have different rules for singular proper nouns.
Some say to use an apostrophe + s:
Las Vegas’s restaurant scene is booming.
Others say to use just an apostrophe:
Los Angeles’ highways are always backed up.
Singular proper nouns: Style guide recommendations
05. Plural proper nouns
Make the word plural (John and Jane Jones → the Joneses), and then add an apostrophe to the end:
The Joneses' dog loved to eat bananas.
06. Joint possession
a. When you’re talking about one thing that multiple people own together, only the final name gets an apostrophe + s:
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is delicious. (The best flavor is chocolate chip cookie dough.)
Ross and Rachel’s breakup divided fans. (Are you Team Ross or Team Rachel?)
b. When you’re talking about multiple things, where each thing belongs to someone else, both names get an apostrophe + s:
Ben’s and Jerry’s dogs love ice cream.
Ross’s and Rachel’s apartments are not very affordable.
Don’t: Use apostrophes for possessive pronouns
Possessive pronouns do not get an apostrophe. Write: its not it’s, yours not your’s, theirs not their’s.
Common possessive pronouns
Don’t: Use apostrophes for plurals (with a few exceptions)
Using apostrophes for plurals is a common mistake that is so common it has its own name: the grocer’s apostrophe, because that’s where you’ll find the biggest offenders: “5 Pineapple’s for $10”.
However, sometimes adding an apostrophe to a plural can avoid confusion and make your text more readable:
Single letters (i’s, A’s)
Specific words (do’s and don’ts)
Some abbreviations and acronyms (PhD’s)
If you’re not following a specific style guide, choose the one that looks better to you and stay consistent.
Here are the answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions about apostrophes.
Where should I put the apostrophe when a name ends in “s”? Is it "James” or “James's"?
As a first name, both James’ and James’s can be correct, depending on the style guide you use. Associated Press says to add just an apostrophe (James’), while the New York Times and Chicago style guides say to add an apostrophe + s (James’s).
If you’re referring to the James family, you would say: The Jameses’ house had a yard.
Should I write “do’s and don’ts” or “dos and don’ts”?
Again, both can be correct, depending on your style guide. Associated Press says do’s and don’ts, while New York Times and Chicago style guides say dos and don’ts.
What’s the correct spelling, “its” or “it’s”?
Only add an apostrophe when you’re replacing the phrase “it is” (it’s cold). In all other cases, you mean the possessive pronoun, and it doesn’t include an apostrophe (the ring lost its sparkle).
When should I use apostrophes in plurals?
Only when doing so would help avoid confusion: dot your i’s. The Associated Press, New York Times and Chicago style guides all agree on this one.
Does the apostrophe go before or after the “s"?
Usually before the “s”, but this one’s tricky, because it varies according to the style guide and also the specific word: plural or singular? Noun or pronoun? Does the word end with an “s”? Does the next word start with an “s”? Read this section above for a full breakdown of the rules: “Do: Use apostrophes for possessive nouns”.
“As we heaped ever more responsibility onto the wide-eyed apostrophe, everything went to hell in a handcart until, now, we are guilty of putting it to work in places it just shouldn’t be.” (Clare Dignall, author of Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave?)
Apostrophes are tricky but can be mastered. Use them for contractions (can’t), to show possession (dog’s), and to make something easier to read (dot your i’s). Don’t use apostrophes to make a word plural, or with possessive pronouns (yours, its).
And of course, check your style guide for specific cases like singular and plural proper nouns that end in ‘s’ (Charles, Dickens), acronyms/abbreviations (PhD’s), and numbers/decades (3’s, 1990’s).
If you’re looking for a comprehensive book that dives into apostrophes and other punctuation rules, I highly recommend The best punctuation book, period. by June Casagrande.
How are you putting these rules into practice in your writing? Let us know in the comments.
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By Lana Raykin, UX Writer at Wix
From New York, now lives in Tel Aviv. Loves good food, good books, and her golden retriever.