Using Apostrophes Correctly Study Guide
What is an apostrophe?
An apostrophe is a punctuation mark (') used to indicate possession (e.g. Joe's breakfast), or to signify the omission of one or more letters in a contraction (e.g. they're, you'll).
What is a contraction?
Contractions are words that are created by combining two other words. We add an apostrophe to stand in for the letters we take out.
- they're (they are)
- don't (do not)
- didn't (did not)
- can't (can not)
- shouldn't (should not)
- couldn't (could not)
- wouldn't (would not)
- he's (he has or he is)
- she's (she has or she is)
- I'll (I will)
- you'll (you will)
- he'll (he will)
- she'll (she will)
- we'll (we will)
- they'll (they will)
- let's (let us)
- won't (will not)
- and a fun one: fo'c's'le (forecastle: the room where the crew is housed in front of the mast of a sailing ship)
Note: When writing an expository essay for school, avoid using contractions. They create an informal style that is inappropriate for an academic setting.
Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes!
- Wrong: your's, her's, our's, their's
- Right: yours, hers, ours, theirs
Its or It's?
One of the trickiest rules in the English language is the distinction between it’s and its.
Its (without an apostrophe) is the possessive form of "it."
- The sailboat is more than 20 feet long, and its mast extends almost 35 feet in the air.
- Idaho is known for its potatoes.
It's (with an apostrophe) is a contraction for "it is."
- Her book is extremely gripping. It’s surely going to be a best-seller.
- It’s going to be a long night.
Singular Possessive Form
To make a singular noun possessive, add an apostrophe and an S.
- sister's smartphone
- cat's collar
- Justin's moves
- nurse's uniform
- horse's hooves
Plural Possessive Form
To make most plural nouns possessive, just add an apostrophe.
- my friends' playlists (for more than one friend)
- the dogs' barking (for more than one dog)
- the nurses' uniforms (for more than one nurse)
- horses' hooves (for more than one horse)
- The Beatles' third album
Plural Possessive: The Tricky Ones
When the plural noun you want to make possessive doesn't already end with an S, add an apostrophe and an S.
- children's toys
- women's clothing
- men's room
- mice's whiskers
- dice's spots
Note: With those pesky words that are the same whether singular or plural, you may need work out the meaning from the context.
- The sheep's pasture (it could be one or more sheep)
- The deer's eyelashes
- The moose's antlers
- The fish’s fins
Classical Proper Names
When using a possessive form of names such as Achilles, Jesus, Moses, Hermes, Odysseus, Oedipus, most grammarians say you should not add an S. Wrong: Achilles’s Right: Achilles’
Tip: "The Fallback"
If it's 2 a.m., you can't remember what you're supposed to do, and you don't have the time or the inclination to wade into this raging debate, you can always get around the issue by writing it out another way using "of.”
Q: “Jones’ home” or “Jones’s home” or “Joneses’ home”? A: The home of the Jones family
Q: “Kansas’ state flower” or “Kansas’s state flower”? A: The state flower of Kansas
David Travis is the founder and CEO of Prospect Prep, a New York City-based tutoring agency dedicated to helping students earn better grades, higher scores, and acceptance letters from the colleges of their dreams.
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