Grammar 8 min read

Apostrophe Rules: Everything you Need to Know, Fast

Main Apostrophe Takeaways:

  • Use an apostrophe in place of the missing letter(s) from a contraction.
  • For shortened decades, such as the ‘70s or ‘80s, put an apostrophe before the first number. Never put the apostrophe before or after the ‘s’.
  • Singular nouns usually get an apostrophe plus an ‘s’ when they become plural.
  • Plural nouns usually get an apostrophe but don’t need an extra ‘s’ when expressing ownership.
  • Last names usually don’t need an apostrophe before the ‘s’ unless they show possession.
  • Plurals that do not express possession usually do not require an apostrophe.

This punctuation mark is incredibly versatile, which is why it is also one of the most confusing things in English grammar.

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This guide explains all of the apostrophe rules. That includes when to use an apostrophe for contractions, dates, possession, last names, and words that end in ‘s’.

What is an Apostrophe?

An apostrophe looks just like a comma, but it sits at the top of a word rather than the bottom. You can find apostrophes in contractions, dates, and holiday names. They also indicate possession in some words and phrases.

Apostrophe is a punctuation that you can use to express ownership.
Apostrophe is a punctuation that you can use to express ownership.
Think of an apostrophe as a buoy floating gently on the water’s surface. You see the buoy bobbing in the waves, but it doesn’t distract you from your swim. You may notice multiple buoys, but they likely aren’t grouped right next to each other.

Commas are like heavy rocks that line the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans. You can’t swap them with buoys because bulky rocks don’t float.

Rocks and buoys have different purposes, but they can coexist in the same body of water. Apostrophes and commas often appear in the same paragraph, but they aren’t interchangeable.

Apostrophes and Contractions: What you Should Know

A contraction is a combination of multiple words or word groups. Instead of saying or spelling each word separately, several words get merged. Contractions are typically used during casual conversations or informal writing assignments.

When you connect two words, an apostrophe is a grammatical glue that holds them together. Place one where the missing letter belongs in a contraction. This missing letter, or letters, is called an omission.

Do not” becomes “don’t“. “I will” becomes “I’ll,” and “you are” becomes “you’re” (but “your” never gets an apostrophe).

We use an apostrophe to merge multiple words. It's called a contraction
We use an apostrophe to merge multiple words. It’s called a contraction.

Common Contractions

Apostrophes also make an appearance in informal contractions such as ain’t. This popular slang word means are not, am not, or is not.

Do you Need Apostrophes for Dates and Holidays?

You’re a millennial if you were born sometime between the early ’80s and mid-’90s. You can also describe this range as the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. Notice there are apostrophes in the shortened date spans but not the unabbreviated decades.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, many students were instructed to add apostrophes at the end of plural dates. For instance, the 1950’s or 1980’s. Some people still do this, but it’s not grammatically correct in the 21st century.

Adding apostrophe s at the end of plural dates is grammatically incorrect.
Adding apostrophe s at the end of plural dates is grammatically incorrect.

You should also avoid adding an apostrophe before the ‘s’ in shortened decades.

Millennials grew up in the ’90s, not the 90’s.
Big hair was popular in the ’80s, not the 80’s.

Things get tricky when referencing specific holidays rather than date ranges.

Mother’s Day has an apostrophe before the ‘s’ even though it’s a holiday for every mother, not just one.

April Fools’ Day takes a different approach and has an apostrophe after the ‘s’.

Veterans Day doesn’t have an apostrophe anywhere.

How do you use Apostrophes for Ownership?

Ownership, also known as possession in the grammar world, often requires apostrophes. This is true for nouns and pronouns. Depending on whether your noun is singular or plural, you’ll use some form of an apostrophe and s.

Apostrophe Rules. We use apostrophes for contractions and to show ownership. Add an apostrophe at the beginning of shortened decade. For ownership, use apostrophe plus s for singular nouns; apostrophe after s for plural nouns; and apostrophe plus s for plural nouns that don't end in s. Special note for names ending in s: adding an apostrophe after the s or apostrophe plus s are both acceptable.
INK Apostrophe Rules Infographic

Possessive words and phrases confuse many people, even self-proclaimed grammar nerds. You must know when to use ‘s or s’, plus when to use an apostrophe after an ‘s’ name.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet before we delve into a deeper explanation of possessives:

  • Add an apostrophe plus ‘s’ for most singular nouns.
  • Include an apostrophe — with no ‘s’ — for most plural nouns.
  • Use an apostrophe plus ‘s’ for most plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s.’
  • Avoid apostrophes when making personal pronouns possessive.

Singular nouns, such as cat or car, typically get an apostrophe plus an ‘s’ when they become plural.

Your cat’s food bowl is empty.
Your car’s windshield is cracked.

This rule also applies when making proper nouns possessive.

Karen’s hair is cut in a perfectly styled bob.
Miguel’s marketing proposals are always submitted before the deadline.

Plural nouns, such as twins and teachers, usually don’t need an extra ‘s’. Add an apostrophe after the ‘s’ to show ownership, and avoid using ‘es’.

Change your twins’ dirty diapers, not your twin’s or twinses diapers.
Stay out of the teachers’ lounge if you’re a student or parent.

Plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’ often get an apostrophe and an ‘s’.

Shop for high heels in the women’s section.
Find toys near the children’s books and clothes.

Personal pronouns don’t require apostrophes when they become possessive. The electronic device you’re reading this grammar guide on is yours, not your’s or yours’. Gifts a loved one receives are his, hers, or theirs.

Plural nouns, such as twins and teachers, usually don't need an extra 's'
Plural nouns, such as “twins” and “teachers,” usually don’t need an extra ‘s’

More Apostrophe Essentials

1. When Should you use an Apostrophe With Last Names?

Many people can’t resist adding unnecessary apostrophes when they see last names. Watch out for apostrophe abuse when spreading holiday cheer, talking about friends, or shopping for home decor. They should only be used to show possession.

Festive Greetings from the Smith’s

You may have sent or received cards with a message like this. However, it’s incorrect because there’s nothing possessive about this phrase.

Festive Greetings from the Smiths

Madame Tussauds is an excellent example of how you use 's' at the end of a last name
Madame Tussauds is an excellent example of how you use ‘s’ at the end of a last name | chrisdorney /

If you can’t resist the urge to add an apostrophe to your surname, make sure it shows possession.

Happy Holidays from the Smith’s Cute Kitties

Happy Halloween from the Rodriguez Family’s Lovable Pups
Please join us at the Johnson’s home for a pool party.

Watch out for welcome-mat woes that stem from incorrect punctuation, too. Your doormat shouldn’t say “The Lennon’s,” and neither should the side of your mailbox.

2. Do Last Names Ending With ‘s’ Need an Apostrophe?

The Lennons are hosting a party, and they want to invite their friends.

The Lennon’s welcome you to a fun-filled event.

The Lennons are hosting the party, not the Lennon’s or the Lennon family. Your invite should just have an ‘s’ after your surname, not an apostrophe. You don’t need an apostrophe because the last name is not expressing ownership.

The Lennons welcome you to a fun-filled event.

When the last name already has an ‘s’, such as Morales or Jones, possession punctuation gets confusing. Some people argue that you should add an extra ‘s’ when the surname becomes possessive.

Adding an extra ‘s’ is often considered redundant in this situation. Instead of declaring you loved the Jones’s chocolate chip cookies, you could say:

  1. The Jones’ treats were tasty.
  2. I liked the cookies the Jones family made.

3. When do Words Ending in ‘s’ Need an Apostrophe?

Many grammar experts cringe when they see grocery store ads littered with excess apostrophes. Dubbed the grocer’s apostrophe, this grammatical issue occurs when unnecessary apostrophes are added before the letter ‘s’.

  • apple’s
  • banana’s
  • cookie’s
  • deli meat’s
  • juice’s

Your grocer has apples on sale, not apple’s. Likewise, you put on your shoes for work, not your shoe’s. Your boss needs your expense sheets, not your expense sheet’s or sheets’. You hate red lights, not red light’s, because they make you late for work.

Apostrophe is a punctuation mark that serves 3 different purposes in English
Do you know that apostrophe is also a diacritical mark? Meaning, it can also be used to give a character or letter a specific phonetic value.

4. Is “Its” Possessive? What About “Whose”?

An apostrophe usually makes a word possessive, but its and it’s are exceptions to this rule. When you want to make the word it possessive, write its, not it’s. It’s is a contraction for it is.

Another exception that causes confusion for similar reasons is whose and who’s. Whose is a possessive that doesn’t use a contraction. Who’s is the contraction for who is.

When making contractions possessive, remember these exceptions:

Its, whose
It’s, who’s

5. Should you use an Apostrophe With Plurals?

Apostrophes are usually reserved for singular form possessives, but some plurals benefit from punctuation. This occurs when omitting an apostrophe might confuse readers.

For example, “Ryder is still learning to capitalize p’s and c’s” is less confusing when apostrophes are inserted.

Put Your Skills to the Test

Apostrophe Rules Question #1

complete the sentence
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. An apostrophe can replace the omission in a contraction. In this sentence, the apostrophe is replacing the missing letter "a" in "are."

Apostrophe Rules Question #2

Adding apostrophe +s at the end of plural dates — for example, the 1980’s — is grammatically correct.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is FALSE. It's grammatically incorrect to add apostrophe +s at the end of plural dates.

Apostrophe Rules Question #3

complete the sentence
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Since there’s no contraction or possession, you don’t need to add an apostrophe before or after the letter "s" in "apples."

Apostrophe Rules Question #4

which sentence is correct
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. "It’s" here serves as a contraction for "It is," with the apostrophe replacing the omission.

Apostrophe Rules Question #5

which sentence is correct

Please select 2 correct answers

Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answers are A and D. Both are acceptable forms for making the proper noun, James, possessive.

Apostrophe Rules Question #6

You can use Whose and Who’s interchangeably in a sentence.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is FALSE. "Whose" is a possessive that doesn’t need a contraction. On the other hand, "who’s" is the contraction for "who is."

Read More: Who Or Whom?

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Comments (2)
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    Mary Ann Bittle July 24 at 4:05 am GMT

    I completely disagree with the “correct” answer to #5! Why would anyone add yet another s when there is already an s there? Besides, that’s how I was taught to do it, back in the ’70s and ’80s, and it always has seemed to be the most LOGICAL way of doing things! James’ dog makes much better sense than James’s dog! Way too clunky with that extra s!

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      Krista Grace Morris Author July 29 at 5:50 am GMT

      Mary, thank you for taking our quiz and for your spot-on feedback! You are right in that s’ is an acceptable form (and way cleaner). We wrote the quiz this way because most academic style guides recommend the s’s format. BUT: we love how clear your answer is and like it so much more! We updated the quiz to reflect your point: both are correct. We created these quizzes for you, so please keep taking them and giving us your feedback. We want to improve in any way we can and make our content the best it can be. We’d love your opinion on this one, what do you think?

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