5.3 Apostrophes

Preview

This section of Ch. 5 will cover the following topics:

  • apostrophes in possessives
  • apostrophes in contractions
  • commonly confused words

An apostrophe looks like a comma floating in the air: ’ .

Apostrophes are used two ways:

  • with a noun, to show possession: Mary’s cat, the neighbor’s garage sale
  • in a contraction, to indicate where something (usually a letter, but sometimes a number) has been left out: didn’t, ’80s.

The challenge is knowing when to use an apostrophe and where to put it. Correct apostrophe use is important because errors change meaning. For example:

Mary’s refers to something Mary has.

Marys refers to more than one person named Mary.

Marys’ refers to more than one person named Mary and they both have something.

Possessives

To possess something is to own it. Words that show possession are called “possessives.” We use apostrophes to show possession.

To know where to put the apostrophe and whether or not to add an “s,” start by asking the question “Who or what does the possessing?”

  • If the answer is a word that ends in a letter other than an “s,” add an apostrophe and an “s.” For example: the children’s toys, the doctor’s visit
  • If the answer is a word that already ends in an “s” (which includes most plurals), add an apostrophe after the existing “s.” For example: two birds’ nest, the girls’ bicycles
  • Occasionally, a word that ends in “s” needs another sound to make the possessive clear. For example: Texas’s border, the dress’s color, my boss’s instructions. Say the word aloud. If it needs another sound, you’ll hear it. Add the apostrophe and another “s.”

Pronouns such as our, ours, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs, and whose are already possessive and do not need apostrophes.  For example:

  • their house
  • her dog
  • our religion

Tip

Contractions are common in informal writing and speech, but should be avoided in academic and business writing.

Contractions

To “contract” means to decrease in size. When two words are shortened into one by removing letters and squeezing the words together, an apostrophe is added where the letters were removed. For example:

is not → isn’t (the apostrophe goes where the “o” was)

you have → you’ve (the apostrophe goes where “ha” was)

Here are some common contractions:

These words  →  become these contractions
are not  →  aren’t should not  →  shouldn’t
cannot  →  can’t that is  →  that’s
could have  →  could’ve there is, there has  →  there’s
could not  →  couldn’t they will  →  they’ll
does not  →  doesn’t they are  →  they’re
do not  →  don’t they have  →  they’ve
have not  →  haven’t we will, we shall  →  we’ll
he will  →  he’ll we are  →  we’re
he is, he has  →  he’s we have  →  we’ve
I would  →  I’d were not  →  weren’t
I will  →  I’ll what is  →  what’s
I am  →  I’m where is  →  where’s
I have  →  I’ve who is, who has  →  who’s
is not  →  isn’t would have  →  would’ve
it is, it has  →  it’s would not  →  wouldn’t
let us  →  let’s you will  →  you’ll
she will  →  she’ll you are  →  you’re
she is, she has  →  she’s you have  →  you’ve
should have  →  should’ve

One exception: When making a contraction of “will not,” the pattern of just removing letters doesn’t hold true:

will not → won’t

In all other contractions, the apostrophe goes exactly where the letter or letters were removed.

Number Contractions

We also sometimes “contract” numbers. The rule is similar: put an apostrophe where the numbers are missing. For example:

He grew up in the ‘90s. (put the apostrophe where the number 19 was removed)

However, if the number is simply a plural, not a contraction, do not add an apostrophe.

The temperature is going to be in the low 40s. (this is just a plural, not a contraction)

Do NOT put an apostrophe between the number and the “s.” These are contractions, not possessives.

Commonly Confused Words

People often confuse these words:

  • “its” (a possessive pronoun) and “it’s” (a contraction of “it is” or “it has”)
  • “whose” (a possessive pronoun) and who’s” (a contraction of “who is” or “who has”)
  • “your” (the possessive pronoun) and “you’re” (a contraction of “you are”)

Here’s a trick: If you can turn a contraction back into two words and the sentence still makes sense, then it’s a contraction and needs an apostrophe. For example:

The cat licked its paw. (You would not say “The cat licked it is paw,” so “its” is a possessive pronoun, not a contraction. No apostrophe.)

Who’s going to the party?  (You would say “Who is going” so this is a contraction and needs an apostrophe.)

The doctor said you’re to take the prescription.  (You would say “You are” so this is a contraction and needs an apostrophe.)

Tip

Don’t put an apostrophe wherever you see an “s.” A lot of words end in “s.” Always ask if the word is showing possession or is a contraction.

Notice that possessives work as adjectives (refer to Ch. 3) and modify nouns. For example:

Mary’s mother

our friends’ arrival (This is a plural. Several friends have arrived. If only one friend arrived, it would be “our friend’s arrival.”)

the Jones’s address

their counselor’s office

a person’s clothes (singular)

people’s clothes (plural, but “people” doesn’t end in s)

Exercise 1

In your notebook, write the following sentences, adding apostrophes where needed.

  1. Colin was a hippie in the 60s.
  2. My brothers wife is one of my best friends.
  3. Its my parents house, but its my bedroom.
  4. I couldnt believe that I got the job!
  5. My supervisors informed me that I wouldnt be able to take the day off.
  6. Wont you please join me for dinner tonight?
  7. Sarahs job just disappeared due to the pandemic.
  8. Texass state flower is a bluebonnet, not a yellow rose.

Takeaways

  • Use apostrophes to show possession.
  • Use apostrophes in contractions to show where letters or numbers have been removed.
  • Do not use apostrophes to indicate a plural.

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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.