11 Simple Rules for How to Use Apostrophes (2019)

how to use apostrophes

Those of us returning to studies after a long break, gap year, or after raising children, may not have thought about apostrophes in years.

Others of us were never taught how to use apostrophes properly in the first place.

Many English as a Second Language (ESL) students missed this lesson, and many others of us were chucking a sickie the day our teachers taught us these important rules!

Unfortunately, very few students get apostrophe placement right. Many were taught apostrophe usage years ago and have let mistakes seep back into their work.

We get lazy and forgetful and one of the first things to go is our discipline with apostrophe placement.

If you are making apostrophe mistakes, you are losing marks in your assignments. Even if your marker doesn’t say so in their feedback, your apostrophe mistakes are costing you.

An essay with poor apostrophe placement will make your marker instantly think your work is sloppy, unedited and unprofessional.

Make your work look clean, tidy and well-presented so your marker looks at your work positively. This will snowball into higher marks overall.

Below are eleven simple steps for getting apostrophe use right every time to raise those marks and ace your essays.

1. Do not use apostrophes to make plurals

The biggest apostrophe make is the use of apostrophes for plurals. Apostrophes do not indicate plurality. One girl makes two girls, not two girl’s. One glass makes two glasses, not two glass’s. No, no, no.

Apostrophes do not make plurals. Apostrophes do not make plurals. Apostrophes do not make plurals.

If you break this golden rule, your marks are going to sink very, very low.

Apostrophes do not make plurals. Can I repeat myself any more?

2. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate ownership

When one person owns something, we use an apostrophe then an s. This is the most common way that apostrophes will be used, and the easiest rule to remember. If you own it, put an apostrophe on it. The technical word for this is ‘possessive apostrophe’. Let’s take a look:

  • Sam owns a sheep.
  • It is Sam’s sheep.

 

  • Anna owns a car.
  • It is Anna’s car.

There are exceptions to this rule, so read on. Step 3 shows when the apostrophe moves from before to after the s.

3. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate membership

When one person is a member of a group, team, country, and so on, we use an apostrophe then an s. This is very similar to the ownership rule. Remember, if the person is a member of a group, then you need an apostrophe. Let’s take a look:

  • Sam is a member of a football team.
  • It is Sam’s football team.
  • Anna is a member of a church.
  • It is Anna’s church.
  • Tom is a member of a country.
  • It is Tom’s country.

Activity: Try it Yourself
Which country are you a member of? If you are named Tom and you’re American, you could write down “The United States of America is Tom’s country.”

Like most rules, there are exceptions to this one too, so read on. Step 4 shows when you need to break this rule.

4. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective ownership

While the above rules work for when a single person owns something, it doesn’t work when there are many people. For example, if we have own mother who has a baby, the rule of having an apostrophe before the s works:

  • The mother has a baby
  • It is a mother’s baby

However, what happens if multiple mothers have babies? The rule needs to change to show we are referring to more than one mother. To do this, we move the apostrophe to after the s:

  • The mothers have babies
  • They are the mothers’ babies.

To recap, we need to use an apostrophe before the s if it is one person who is the owner of something but we need to use an apostrophe after the s if it is multiple people who are the owners of something.

5. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective membership

Similarly, this same rule works for multiple people who are members of a group. If it is one person who is in a group, it is Sam’s team or John’s band. However, if we are indicating multiple people who are all members of a group, we will place the apostrophe after the s:

  • The three boys are in a band.
  • It is the boys’ band
  • The Germans are in a club
  • It is the Germans’ club

Sometimes the plural of a noun ends in -ies. We still place the apostrophe after the s for these collective plural nouns:

Noun

Plural Noun

Collective Ownership

Fly

Flies

The flies’ home

Appendix

Appendices

The appendices’ pages

Wolf

Wolves

Wolves’ den

Peach

Peaches

Peaches’ skins

Steps 1 to 5 are our most basic and important rules of possessive apostrophes. The apostrophe goes before the s if it’s one person who is the owner or member of something; and the apostrophe goes after the s if it’s multiple people who are the owners or members of something. Easy, right!?

6. Use an apostrophe before the s for irregular plural nouns

Some words in the English language have irregular plural nouns. This means that for some reason our ancestors made unique words to signify ‘many’ of a particular name or object. Here’s some examples:

Singular

Plural

One Mother

Many Mothers

One Sister

Many Sisters

One Brother

Many Brothers

One Soldier

Many Soldiers

Singular

Plural

One Child

Many Childs Children

One Man

Many mans Men

One Person

Many persons People

One Foot

Many foots Feet

I don’t know why our ancestors decided to mess with us like this, but they did. And now we must suffer.

For irregular plural nouns, there’s no need to place the apostrophe after the s. It makes perfect sense to leave it before the s because there is absolutely no ambiguity about plurality.

Here’s some examples:

  • Two children own a football.
  • It is the childs’ children’s footfall
  • Fifteen men are in a group.
  • It is the mans’ men’s group

7. Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions

Okay, we’re up to our very last of our core six rules! Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions! This is one I’m sure you’re familiar with. I’ve already used it three times in this paragraph alone:

  • It’s means It is
  • We’re means we are
  • I’ve means I have

Over time, English speakers have gotten lazy with their language and started blending words together. In fact, this is one reason why people learning English struggle to understand us! It gets harder in old English towns in the North of England where even Americans find it hard to understand those funny English accents!

It has become so commonplace to slur our words together that we have learned to write those slurred words in a particular way. We squish them together, remove the letters we don’t say, and replace them with an apostrophe. Let’s look at a few more:

They are

They’re

Who have

Who’ve

She is

She’s

Madam

Ma’am

Of the clock

O’clock

Would not

Wouldn’t

Could have

Could’ve

One last quick note on contractions: these are often considered informal, and discouraged in professional writing such as in essays.

8. The rule of its versus it’s

The English language is full of contradictions and exceptions to rules. One exception is with the word “its” versus “it’s”. Take a look at this example:

The dog’s baby is crying.

The cat’s baby is crying

The mother’s baby is crying.

Its baby is crying.

All four of the above sentences are correct. All four sentences indicate something (a dog, a cat, a mother, and it) all possess a baby that is crying. Nonetheless, “Its” doesn’t have an apostrophe to indicate possession.

The reason for this is simple: The word “it’s” is already taken! “It’s” always means “it is”. So, the possessive apostrophe doesn’t count in this situation.

Action Tip
Let’s make things simple: An apostrophe should only be used for “It’s” to signify the contraction of “it is”. No exceptions. This is a quirk in the English language, and we have to deal with it!

Stop, Recap!

We have now covered the most basic possessive apostrophe rules. These are your eight rules to live by. It’s best to get these ones right as they’ll serve you well in your studies. Let’s recap:

  1. Apostrophes do not create plurals
  2. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate ownership
  3. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate membership
  4. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective ownership
  5. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective membership
  6. Use an apostrophe before the s for irregular plural nouns
  7. Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions
  8. It’s means “it is”

The next set of rules are more obscure, but worth having a read through if you feel you’ve mastered steps 1 to 8.

9. Use an apostrophe before the s at the end of a list of owners or members

Next, just to complicate things a little more, the rule also changes if we are referring to a list of people who own something. Let’s say Tom, Bill and John all have a band. We will say:

  • It is Tom, Bill and John’s band.

However, if we were referring to Tom, Bill and John collectively as “the boys”, we would say:

  • It is the boys’ band.

Similarly, we can say that Anne and Peter own a house together. Here, because it is a list of people, we will say:

  • It is Anne and Peter’s house

10. When a singular noun ends in s, most (but not all) style guides suggest including an apostrophe and an s

In step 4, we learned that plural nouns use an apostrophe, but not a second s. To recap, here as some examples of plural possessives:

  • The mothers’ babies
  • The soldiers’ swords

But! Some singular nouns end in s, and here’s where things get tricky. Here are a few examples of singular nouns ending in s:

  • Chris
  • James
  • Class
  • Glass

To indicate that Chris owns something, do we say Chris’s or just Chris’. For example, is it “Chris’s car” or “Chris’ car”? The answer is: no one knows. Different style guides give different advice.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Style Guide note that we should use an apostrophe and an s in this situation. So, it would be Chris’s car. This, I think, is the most straightforward way of doing things, and makes the most sense to me:

  • Chris’s pencil was sharp.
  • James’s finger was sore.
  • The class’s lunch hour was long.
  • The glass’s surface was shiny.

However, I would hasten to stress that some style guides do things differently. For example, the Associated Press Style Book suggests that if the following word begins in s, you don’t need to include an s after the apostrophe, for example:

  • AP Style: The glass’ shine.
  • AP Style: The class’ seven pens.
  • Chicago Style: The glass’s shine.
  • Chicago Style: The class’s seven pens.

The Associated Press Style Book also suggests not including an s after the apostrophe for all proper nouns, such as names:

  • AP Style: Chris’ house
  • AP Style: Jess’ foot
  • Chicago Style: Chris’s house
  • Chicago Style: Jess’s foot

My Suggestion
My suggestion is to stick to the Chicago Manual of Style guide unless otherwise instructed by a particularly picky teacher. This style guide is the most straightforward, consistent and easy to remember. If a singular noun ends in s, you can still follow it with ‘s, as in: Chris’s.

11. Use an apostrophe to indicate omissions

We often use apostrophes when we are writing to show lazy or truncated language use. You might recognize this use of the apostrophe when reading the language of Hagrid in Harry Potter:

“Well, yeh might’ve bent a few rules, Harry, bu’ yeh’re all righ’ really, aren’ you?”

Here, lazy language where the “g” and “t” at the end of a word is missed like in:

  • Nothin’
  • Bu’
  • Migh’ not

This language use is not recommended in non-fiction or essay writing, but it is worth remembering that this is one last time when apostrophe use is appropriate.

Summing Up

You need to know how to use apostrophes if you want to become a top student. I recommend you print out these eleven key steps and use them when editing your work:

How to Use Apostrophes in Eleven Easy Steps

  1. Do not use apostrophes to indicate plurality
  2. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate ownership
  3. Use an apostrophe before the s to indicate membership
  4. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective ownership
  5. Use an apostrophe after the s to indicate collective membership
  6. Use an apostrophe before the s for irregular plural nouns
  7. Use an apostrophe to indicate contractions
  8. It’s means “it is”
  9. Use an apostrophe before the s at the end of a list of owners or members
  10. When a singular noun ends in s, still use ‘s to indicate possession and membership unless otherwise requested
  11. Use an apostrophe to indicate omissions

 

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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