When to Use an Apostrophe

Mignon Fogarty,
October 29, 2015
Episode #488

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when to use an apostrophe

Apostrophes are one of the more confounding punctuation marks. If you search for signs with “grammar errors” online, most of the results will likely include an apostrophe error (which is actually a punctuation error, not a grammar error, but I digress). Here are some of the most common ways to use apostrophes—and some interesting rare cases.

1. For Possessive Nouns

When you consider apostrophes, the first word that probably comes to mind is possessive because our grade-school teachers taught us that apostrophes make things possessive—more specifically, apostrophes make nouns possessive. We use apostrophes to write about Oprah’s new recommendation, J.K. Rowling’s new book, and Taylor Swift’s new song.

2. For Compound Possession

When you’re writing about the possessions of two people, it’s a little different. Before you can place your apostrophes, you need to figure out whether the people have the thing together or separately: 

  • If they possess the thing together, use one apostrophe on the final name: Frannie and Luke’s house is at the end of the street.
  • If they have separate possessions, each person needs an apostrophe: Frannie’s and Luke’s bikes are in the garage
  • If you’re mixing nouns and pronouns, they both need to be possessive no matter who owns what: Frannie’s and my house is at the end of the street. (Although such sentences are correct, they often sound awkward. It’s usually better to reword them to something like Our house is at the end of the block, or The house where Frannie and I live is at the end of the block.)

3. NOT for Possessive Pronouns

Not all apostrophes are for possessives though. You don’t use apostrophes to a make pronouns possessive, for example. Instead, pronouns have their own possessive forms that have different spellings. You’reit’s, and they’re are not possessive pronouns; they are contractions of you areit is or it has, and they are. Instead, to become possessive, the pronoun you becomes yourit becomes its, and they becomes their

4. For Contractions and Other Omissions

Apostrophes in contractions such as it’s and they’re show that letters have been omitted. Other examples of contractions with omitted letters include can’the’d, and o’clock. Although the more obscure contractions such as I’d’ve, there’re, and that’ve are properly formed because the apostrophes mark the omitted letters, it’s best to avoid them because they distract readers. (If you read very old manuscripts, you’ll see all kinds of strange contractions and words with two apostrophes. They were more common in the past before spelling became as standardized as it is today.)


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