Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly

Punctuation in English

The apostrophe has two main jobs in English: to mark contractions and to indicate possession. While that may sound simple enough, clearly many people are baffled by the little squiggle. The apostrophe is often misplaced or forgotten, and sometimes it shows up in words where it isn't needed at all.

Although there will always be minor disagreements about usage, these six guidelines should help you decide when to use apostrophes, where to put them, and when to leave them out altogether.

01
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Use an Apostrophe to Show the Omission of Letters in a Contraction

Use the apostrophe to form contractions:

  • I'm (I am)
  • you're (you are)
  • he's (he is)
  • she's (she is)
  • it's* (it is)
  • we're (we are)
  • they're (they are)
  • isn't (is not)
  • aren't (are not)
  • can't (cannot)
  • don't (do not)
  • who's (who is)
  • won't (will not)

Be careful to place the apostrophe where the letter or letters have been omitted, which is not always the same place where the two words have been joined.

* Don't confuse the contraction it's (meaning "it is") with the possessive pronoun its:

  • It's the first day of spring.
  • Our bird has escaped from its cage.
02
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Use an Apostrophe With "-s" for Possessives of Singular Nouns

Use an apostrophe plus -s to show the possessive form of a singular noun, even if that singular noun already ends in -s:

  • Harold's crayon
  • my daughter's First Communion
  • Sylvia Plath's novel
  • Dylan Thomas's poetry*
  • today's weather report
  • the boss's problem
  • Bridget Jones's baby*
  • Victoria Beckham's husband
  • the justice's colleagues**

* Some style guides (including The Associated Press Stylebook but not The Chicago Manual of Style) recommend using only an apostrophe after singular proper names ending in -s (for example, Achilles' heel and Tennessee Williams' plays). Our advice on this matter: follow your style manual or your own good sense, and be consistent.

** According to some style guides, a singular noun that ends in an s sound (such as ce and x) may take either apostrophe plus -s or the apostrophe alone.

03
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Use an Apostrophe Without "-s" for Possessives of Most Plural Nouns

To form the possessive of a plural noun that already ends in -s, simply add an apostrophe:

  • the girls' swing set (the swing set belonging to the girls)
  • the students' projects (the projects belonging to the students)
  • the Johnsons' house (the house belonging to the Johnsons)

If the plural noun does not end in -s, add an apostrophe plus -s:

  • the women's conference (the conference belonging to the women)
  • the children's toys (the toys belonging to the children)
  • the men's training camp (the training camp belonging to--or used by--the men)
04
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Use an Apostrophe With "-s" When Two or More Nouns Possess the Same Thing

When two or more nouns possess the same thing, add an apostrophe plus -s to the last noun listed:

  • Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream
  • Emma and Nicole's school project (Emma and Nicole worked together on the same project.)

When two or more nouns separately possess something, add an apostrophe to each noun listed:

  • Tim's and Marty's ice cream (Each boy has his own ice cream.)
  • Emma's and Nicole's school projects (Each girl has her own project.)
05
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Don't Use an Apostrophe with Possessive Pronouns

Because possessive pronouns already show ownership, it's* not necessary to add an apostrophe:

  • yours
  • his
  • hers
  • its*
  • ours
  • theirs

However, we do add an apostrophe plus -s to form the possessive of some indefinite pronouns:

  • anybody's guess
  • one's personal responsibility
  • somebody's wallet

* Don't confuse the contraction it's (meaning "it is") with the possessive pronoun its:

  • It's the first day of spring.
  • Our bird has escaped from its cage.
06
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Generally, Don't Use an Apostrophe to Form a Plural

As a general rule, use only an -s (or an -es) without an apostrophe to form the plurals of nouns--including dates, acronyms, and family names:

  • Markets were booming in the 1990s.
  • The tax advantages offered by IRAs make them attractive investments.
  • The Johnsons have sold all their CDs.

To avoid confusion, we may occasionally need to use apostrophes to indicate the plural forms of certain letters and expressions that aren't commonly found in the plural--for example, "Mind your p's and q's."

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