Core Grammar #8: Apostrophes

Using (and misusing) Apostrophes

This is yet one more place where spoken and written English are different—spoken English has no apostrophes. You cannot hear them. If you depend on your ear to help you with apostrophes, they will appear randomly all over your paper, in some very goofy places. Written English, however, has a few very specific rules about apostrophes: They have only two uses, and one of those is not appropriate to formal writing.

Possession—the only apostrophes you really need

One person or thing owns it:

Notice the position of the apostrophe (I put it in red to make things easier).

More than one owns it:

Notice that the apostrophe moves to a different position.

Men and women

Many of my students are unaware that both "man" and "woman" become plural by changing a letter in the middle:

One man. Two men.

One woman. Two women.

(By the way, people making the transition to written English often have trouble with this because the singular "woman" is pronounced "womun" and the plural "women" is pronounced "wimmin." The spelling checker will not help you decide between "woman" and "women.")

If a plural form does not have an "s" on the end, the plural possessive actually looks like a singular possessive:

A word about parents:

If both parents (typically mother and father) are in the sentence, a native English speaker feels comfortable speaking (and writing) about them as a group: "My parents are coming to see me." If only one is in the sentence, it is correct but non-idiomatic (we just do not say it that way) to use the word parent. If my mother is coming for a visit, I would be very unlikely to write or say, "My parent is coming to see me." I would be much more likely to refer to her as my mother.

This is a usage question: If both of your parents own something, it is just fine to write "my parents’ house," but if only one parent is in the sentence, write "my mother’s house" or "my father’s car."

More than one word about pronouns

Possession is built into the spelling of possessive pronouns, so an apostrophe is not used (even when the word ends in "s").

Write Not
yours your’s
hers her’s
theirs their’s

And of course, we must deal with its/it’s

The confusion comes in because there are two different words that mean different things, but sound the same.

Pluralizing words and letters, a usage which has changed

The usage for pluralizing strings of initials has changed a great deal, and the changes are very recent. Thirty years ago, if you saw a report that several people who held the title CEO had gotten together for a meeting, the apostrophe would have been required: "Four CEO’s met today." Then, very quickly (it took about five years), we moved from "required" to "good, but optional," to "OK, but not recommended" to "don’t do it." The current correct usage would be "Four CEOs met today." (By the way, we dropped the periods too, so you won't see "John Doe is C.E.O. of the Acme Company." They are all capitals, so you won't see "John Doe is Ceo of the Acme Company" either.)

More information:

Help from the computer:

Microsoft Word will sometimes give you good advice about apostrophes, but it’s often wrong. You should know the rule instead of blindly following the computer’s advice.

The way I mark things:

If an apostrophe is missing, I will just put it in and circle it so you can find it. If you put in one too many, I will circle it with a strike through the circle (similar to those European traffic signs).

Contractions: correct, but too close

Spoken languages are always cutting things down and dropping sounds. "Going to" becomes "Gonna." "Want to" becomes "Wanna." Of course, you would never write a memo to the dean saying, "I’m gonna study English because I wanna become a lawyer." You would switch to the written forms and write, "I am going to study English because I want to become a lawyer." In writing, particularly in formal writing, you use complete forms, and that usually means full spelling and dropping contractions.

Correct grammar

It is perfectly correct to use standard contractions to combine two words into one. "Do not" becomes "Dont." Just make sure you put the apostrophe where the letters were removed. Do not write "Dont."

However, too close

Contractions in writing decrease the social distance between the writer and the reader. Consider the difference between these two invitations:

I’d like to have lunch with you. Let’s plan on one o’clock. I don’t like the noon rush.
More formal:
I would like to have lunch with you. Let us plan on one o’clock. I do not like the noon rush.

Full spelling keeps you out of trouble in three ways:

Staying out of trouble #1

Business writing and academic writing are not intimate and affectionate. Full spelling (rather than using contractions) increases the social distance and cuts down on the buddy-buddy feeling of the piece. (Many professors and most business writing situations will simply reject a draft with contractions.)

Staying out of trouble #2

The apostrophe is necessary in spelling a contraction; however, some contractions make it through the spelling checker without their apostrophes—because they become different actual words (but not the words the writer was hoping for).

You will look foolish if you write "Ill be there, but George cant." (Yes, we can figure it out, but we also figured out that you are sloppy and ignorant.)

Staying out of trouble #3

Many people who are making the transition from spoken English to written English have trouble with homophones. These are words that have the same spoken sound, but mean very different things and are spelled differently. Examples are your/you’re, they’re/their/there, and we’re/were. Often, you can stay out of trouble by switching to full spelling. Few people would confuse "you are" with "your."

Not for plurals

With one very rare exception (individual letters being discussed as letters), absolutely nothing in written English forms a plural by using an apostrophe. Do not write:


You may need to learn a new spelling rule or two

To form the plural of a word that ends in "y" or a word that ends in a difficult consonant sound ("x" or "ch") do not simply tack on an "s." If you try to form the plural with an apostrophe, you are announcing that you don’t know the language very well. Learn the real rules.

More information:

Help from the computer:

The computer cannot guess how many of something you are thinking of, and the form with apostrophe + s is often possible grammatically, so do not depend on the grammar checker to keep you out of trouble.

The way I mark things:

If an "s" is missing, I will just put it in and circle it so you can find it. If you put in an apostrophe that does not belong there, I will circle it with a strike through the circle (similar to those European traffic signs).

Not for verb endings

Absolutely no verb in the language needs an apostrophe to add "s." Do not write:

One last misuse: accent marks

If you don’t understand a computer, you may not know that there is a way to type a letter with an accent mark. Many foreign languages use these, and they are not the same as apostrophes: Jose’ is not the same spelling as José.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 7/18/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: