4.3 Apostrophes


This section of Ch. 4 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.


To possess something is to own it. Words that show possession are called “possessives.” We use sometimes 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”: 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”: two birds’ nest, the girls’ bicycles
  • Sometimes 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

Possessives work as adjectives (refer to Ch. 3) to modify nouns. For example:

Mary’s mother (the mother belongs to Mary)

our friends’ arrival (We know that several friends have arrived because of where the apostrophe is. If only one friend arrived, it would be “our friend’s arrival.”  Moving the apostrophe changes the meaning.)

the Jones’s address (the address belongs to the Jones family)

their counselor’s office (the office belongs to the counselor)

a person’s clothes (the clothes belong to a single person)

people’s clothes (the clothes belong to several people, but “people” is plural that doesn’t end in s)

Possessives can be complicated. If you think you need an apostrophe, come back and look at these rules to be sure.


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


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

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

will not → won’t

But in all other contractions, the spelling doesn’t change and 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 served in the military in the ‘90s. (put the apostrophe where the number 19 was removed)

If the number is simply a plural, not a contraction, then no apostrophe.

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

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

Commonly Confused Words


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.

People often confuse these word pairs:

  • “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” (a possessive pronoun) and “you’re” (a contraction of “you are”)

One way to know if a word is a contraction and needs an apostrophe is to see if you can turn the contraction back into two words and the sentence still makes sense. 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 to take the prescription,” so this is a contraction and needs an apostrophe.)

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.


  • 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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