How to Master the Apostrophe
With these simple guidelines, you’ll use apostrophes confidently and correctly.
Apostrophes are one of the most diverse punctuation marks in the English language. They can be used and placed in various ways to change the meaning of a sentence. You’ll want to make sure you’re using them correctly, so that your writing reads clearly. In this article, we’ll outline simple rules that will bring confidence and accuracy to your apostrophe use in the future.
This is an apostrophe:
It is also known as the right single quotation mark.
This looks like an apostrophe but is not:
It is the left single quotation mark, which can’t be interchanged with an apostrophe.
Apostrophes are used for three main reasons: signifying possessives, replacing missing letters or numbers, and—rarely—to form plurals.
1. Signifying Possessives
This is the most complicated use of the apostrophe. Possessives have a handful of nuances based on singular or plural form and, in some cases, the pronunciation of the individual word. But don’t let that scare you. We’ll lay out some simple rules you can follow so you’ll get this down in no time.
This is the easy one. To show that a singular person, place, or thing possesses something or someone else, add an apostrophe and an s to the end of the noun.
The cat’s paws were as pristine as a white carpet.
A student’s book was in the street.
My toddler’s red balloon sailed into the sky.
The same rule applies to singular nouns that end in s. Add both the apostrophe and the s at the end of the word.
James’s dog chases Chris’s ball.
Arkansas’s capital has a booming industry.
Agnes’s report said that her crocus’s petals were as vibrant as ever.
Note: Not every style guide agrees on the treatment of singular nouns as possessives. For example, in the Associated Press (AP) style, the noun being proper or common will determine whether to use an apostrophe or the apostrophe s. However, the majority of style guides, including Chicago style (CMOS), American Psychological Association style (APA), and Modern Language Association style (MLA), agree with the rule above.
Most plural words in the English language end in s or es to show more than one person, place, or thing. For those plural possessives, add only the apostrophe after the end of the word.
The knives’ sharpness made even the most experienced chefs take precaution.
My sisters’ shoes always look pristine.
The boxes’ angles interested the children.
For plural nouns that don’t end in s or es, we revert back to the original rule. Add an apostrophe and an s.
The children’s toys were sprawled across the room.
The mice’s tails whipped behind them as they ran.
The women’s discussion enlightened each member of the room.
There are a handful of words in English that end in s both when they are singular and plural. Examples are leggings and politics. For these kinds of words, just add an apostrophe like you would for plural words ending in s, even if they are used in a singular sense.
The headquarters’ main office had cubicles.
The crossroads’ intersections both needed to be cleared of debris.
The tweezers’ prongs were sharper than necessary.
Similarly, words that have a plural form ending in s but are singular in meaning, like United States, follow the same rule of adding only an apostrophe.
Beverly Hills’ homes are some of the most expensive in the country.
Longwood Gardens’ woodlands contain over 100 floral species.
Portland Academy of Writers’ meetings are extensive and informative.
When a noun is owned by two or more people, this is called joint possession. The placement of the apostrophe (or apostrophes) in joint possession will change the meaning of the sentence. If two or more people own the same item, only one apostrophe is used with the last written owner’s name. If two or more people own separate but similar items, apostrophes are used with each written owner’s name.
For example, if we wanted to talk about dogs that were owned by both Jim and Pam, we would write, “Jim and Pam’s dogs.” The apostrophe is placed only after Pam’s name to show that Jim and Pam own the same dogs. If we wanted to talk about dogs that were owned separately, some by Jim and some by Pam, we would write, “Jim’s and Pam’s dogs.” The apostrophes after both names signify that Jim and Pam do not own the same dogs but have their own set of dogs.
Chancy, Noah, and Clara’s parents celebrated their 28th anniversary.
(Chancy, Noah, and Clara all have the same parents.)
Emma’s, Anthony’s, and Sawyer’s parents shop at the same grocery store.
(Emma, Anthony, and Sawyer all have different parents.)
Halley and Stuart’s bakery is located on the corner.
(Halley and Stuart own the same bakery.)
Josie’s and Caleb’s bakeries are across the street from each other.
(Josie and Caleb own two separate bakeries.)
Last Names Ending in S
Here’s a little bonus section for you. Sometimes last names that end in s can make the plural and the possessive complicated. But if you follow the rules stated above, you can figure out the correct way to write each last name in each situation.
Let’s say the last name is Leavitt. If we want to talk about one Leavitt (singular) in the possessive form, we would add an apostrophe and an s. “Sophie Leavitt’s nails were painted red.”
If we want to talk about all the people in the Leavitt family (plural), it would be Leavitts. Now, let's add the possessive form with the plural. Like we mentioned above, for plurals already ending in s, simply add an apostrophe. “The Leavitts’ car is brand new.” Simple enough, right?
Here’s where the confusion comes in. What if the last name ends in s already? Let’s take the last name Roberts, for example. In the singular possessive form, we would say, “Ignacio Roberts’s house is the quaintest on the block.” Making that last name plural, it’s Robertses. Now, follow the same rule for a plural noun already ending in s: add only an apostrophe. “The Robertses’ cat dashed under our porch.”
2. Replacing Missing Letters or Numbers
Sometimes apostrophes stand in for letters or numbers. These are called contractions. For example, in the contraction don’t the apostrophe stands in for the missing o in the phrase do not. Here are more examples:
won’t for will not
’twas for it was
gov’t for government
rock ’n’ roll for rock and roll
cookin’ for cooking
Apostrophes standing in for numerals have less variations. They are mainly used to signify the year. So, instead of 1994, we could use an apostrophe to replace the numbers 19 and simply write ’94.
3. Forming Plurals
This is the least common use of the apostrophe. In fact, it’s pretty rare. An apostrophe can show the plural form only when adding an s or es would make the meaning ambiguous.
For example, if we’re talking about lowercase letters of the alphabet in the plural form, it would be confusing to read “The teacher wrote xes on the chalkboard.” The reader may not know if the teacher wrote more than one x or xes. Instead, to be very clear, we would use an apostrophe. “The teacher wrote x’s on the chalkboard.” This applies to lowercase letters, but capital letters are pluralized by adding only s. (“She got all As on her report card.”)
You may also see this same usage being applied to numbers, but it’s not as common. (“The algorithm required we use only 0’s and 1’s.”)
Apostrophes are diverse, but you can master them if you review the guidelines outlined above. The more you practice using apostrophes, the more confident you’ll be that you’re applying them correctly. To learn more about apostrophes, you can read the Chicago Manual of Style, sections 7.5–30 and 5.20. And if you’re ever confused, you can always refer back to this article.