apostrophe (punctuation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

As Richard Lederer says in The Revenge of Anguished English (2007), "Note the havoc wreaked by a missing apostrophe in this ad." (See our Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly.).


An apostrophe is a mark of punctuation (') used to identify a noun in the possessive case or indicate the omission of one or more letters from a word. Adjective: apostrophic.

See Examples and Observations (below) for advice on using (and in some cases not using) apostrophes with possessive nouns, contractions, family names, possessive pronouns, letters, and descriptive phrases.

For the rhetorical term, see apostrophe (figure of speech).

Apostrophe Exercises and Quizzes

Also see:

From the Greek, "turning away"

Examples and Observations

  • Basic Guidelines for Using the Possessive Apostrophe
    To form the possessive of singular nouns, add 's (Homer's job, the dog's breakfast). To form the possessive of plural nouns that end in s, add an apostrophe (the bankers' bonuses, the coaches' offices). To form the possessive of plural nouns that end in a letter other than s, add 's (the women's cars, the children's lunch boxes).

    - "The mother's heart is the child's schoolroom."
    (Henry Ward Beecher)

    - "Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)

    - "I will not hide the teacher's medication."
    (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)

    - "Teachers' unions are not ruining the country."
    (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)

    - "If we spark a student's passion, we unleash a powerful force upon the world."
    (attributed to Tim Fargo)

    - "[T]he first instance of grading students' papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish."
    (Neil Postman, Technopoly. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

    - "Don't let anyone tell you that apostrophes don't matter and we would be better off without them. Consider these four phrases, each of which means something different:
    my sister's friend's books (refers to one sister and her friend)
    my sister's friends' books (one sister with lots of friends)
    my sisters' friend's books (more than one sister, and their friend)
    my sisters' friends' books (more than one sister, and their friends)
    (David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Random House UK, 2010)
  • Apostrophes in Contractions
    "Apostrophes are also used in contractions (two or more words are combined to form one, with letters omitted). The classes of word which are most frequently affected by contractions are verbs and pronouns: for example, I'm, let's, you'll. . . . The apostrophe generally replaces omitted letters: for example, the o in not (doesn't)."
    (Ray Barker and Christine Moorcroft, Spelling First. Nelson Thornes, 2002)

    -"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude."
    (attributed to Maya Angelou)

    -"She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together."
    (J.D. Salinger)

    - "Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do."
    (Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea, 1938)
  • Apostrophes With Family Names
    "This brings us to those names we see in front of houses and on mailboxes everywhere--'The Smith's,' 'The Gump's,' and even (sigh) 'The Jone's.' . . .

    "Who lives in the house? The Smiths. The Gumps. The Joneses. That's what the signs should say. It's really nobody else's business whether the Smiths, the Gumps, and the Joneses own their domiciles. All we need to know is that the Smiths, the Gumps, and the Joneses live there. If you must announce possession, place the apostrophe after the plural names--'the Smiths',' 'The Gumps',' and 'The Joneses'.'"
    (Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense. St. Martin's, 2005)
  • Descriptive Phrases Without Apostrophes
    "Don't use apostrophes in such primarily descriptive phrases as a New York Mets outfielder, a teachers college, a writers manual, a childrens book, the agencies request. As the AP Stylebook helpfully notes, the apostrophe is usually skipped if 'for' or 'by' would go better than 'of' in a longer version: college for teachers, manual for writers, request by the agencies.

    "In descriptive names, some organizations or institutions use the apostrophe while others don't. For instance, Diner's Club, but National Governors' Association. Consult your house style."
    (Rene J. Cappon, The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation. Basic Books, 2003)
  • Pronouns Without Apostrophes; Letters and Numbers With Apostrophes (Sometimes)
    "In the 19th century, printers and publishers attempted to standardize the system [of using apostrophes], but they still left some anomalies. They applied the rule about possession rigorously to nouns, but forgot about pronouns, so that the possessives his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs don't have an apostrophe. They banned the apostrophe from plurals. but allowed a number of exceptional cases, such as after numerals (the 1860's), abbreviations (the VIP's), and individual letters (P's and Q's).

    "Anyone who refuses point-blank to allow an apostrophe before a plural has to surrender when they are asked to punctuate 'dot the i's and cross the t's.'"
    (David Crystal, By Hook or by Crook. Overlook, 2008)

    - "Omitted Figures: The class of '62. The Spirit of '76. The '20s.

    "Plurals of a single letter: Mind your p's and q's. He learned the three R's and brought home a report card with four A's and two B's. The Oakland A's won the pennant."
    (The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law: 2013, ed. by Darrell Christian, Sally Jacobsen, and David Minthorn. Basic Books, 2013)

    - "Letters of the alphabet. Some letters can be made plural by adding an s (the three Rs), but often an apostrophe is needed:
    How many students received A's?
    Are all the i's dotted and the t's crossed?
    Mind your p's and q's."
    (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook, 2nd ed. Univ. of California Press, 2006)

    - "Decades do not have apostrophes: the 1990s."
    (The Economist Style Guide. Profile Books, 2010)
  • Apostrophes With Abbreviated Verbs
    "In recent years a number of abbreviated verbs have become a part of our language, and the apostrophe is a vital ingredient in their correct spelling.
    1. She OK'd the merger.
    2. He was KO'd in the fifth round.
    3. They OD'd on barbiturates.
    . . . [T]he apostrophe is entirely legitimate here. Indeed, it is essential: not to signal the dropping of the e invites the reader to 'mispronounce' the verb, with potentially confusing results."
    (Richard Palmer, Write in Style: A Guide to Good English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)
  • Origin of the Apostrophe
    "The 16th-century printers not only contributed marks for interpolations to the general repertory but also developed new marks to indicate omissions. The apostrophe is a peculiarity of written language: it was intended as a sign to indicate the elision of a vowel, but it was retained to indicate a missing letter when the vowel no longer appeared in the spoken form."
    (M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation. Univ. of California Press, 1993)
  • G.B. Shaw on Apostrophes: "Uncouth Bacilli"
    "The apostrophies [sic] in ain't, don't, haven't, etc., look so ugly that the most careful printing cannot make a page of colloquial dialogue as handsome as a page of classical dialogue. Besides, shan't should be sha"n't, if the wretched pedantry of indicating the elision is to be carried out. I have written aint, dont, havnt, shant, shouldnt and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only where its omission would suggest another word: for example, hell for he'll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. I also write thats, whats, lets, for the colloquial forms of that is, what is, let us; and I have not yet been prosecuted."
    (George Bernard Shaw, "Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers." The Author, 1901)
  • Gertrude Stein on Apostrophes
    "[The] apostrophe has a gentle tender insinuation that makes it very difficult to definitely decide to do without it. One does do without it, I do, I mostly always do, but I cannot deny that from time to time I feel myself having regrets and from time to time I put it in to make the possessive case. I absolutely do not like it all alone when it is outside the word when the word is a plural, no then positively and definitely no, I do not like it and in leaving it out I feel no regret . . .."
    (Gertrude Stein, "Punctuation in Prose." Lectures in America, 1935)
  • The Lighter Side of Apostrophes
    "Not only do I not know what's going on, I wouldn't know what to do about it if I did."
    (George Carlin)

    Homer: There's your giraffe, little girl.
    Ralph: I'm a boy.
    Homer: That's the spirit. Never give up.
    (The Simpsons)

Pronunciation: ah-POS-tro-fee