How to use apostrophes (’)

by Liz Walter​
apostrophes
Using apostrophes in the wrong way is one of the most common punctuation errors for native speakers of English as well as for learners.

If you remember these three simple rules, you will avoid mistakes:

1) We use apostrophes to show who something belongs to, e.g. This is Tom’s hat.

2) We also use them for contracted forms, to show that something is missing, e.g. It’s raining.

3) We do not use them for plurals!! If you are in an English-speaking country, you will see many signs in shops and cafés advertising ‘tomato’s’, ‘pizza’s’, ‘sandwich’s’, etc. This is incorrect, and you will lose marks if you do this in an English exam!

These are the main rules to remember, but here is a little more detail:

We usually add ’s to singular words to show who or what something belongs to: my mum’s car, the dog’s tail, Harry’s school.

We also add ’s to plural words that don’t end in ‘s’: women’s books, people’s opinions.

For plurals that do end in ‘s’, we simply put an apostrophe at the end of the word: the animals’ owner, my parents’ house.

For singular words ending in ‘s’, you can add either ’s or – for more formal writing – just the apostrophe: Tess’s phone number, Ben Holmes’s friend, Dickens’ novels.

We often use apostrophes at the end of the names of jobs when we are talking about the place where they work: go to the doctor’s, the greengrocer’s.

In contracted forms, the apostrophe shows where one or more letters has been left out. For example, I’d can mean I had or I would, and they’re means they are. These forms are not suitable for very formal writing, where it is better to write the words in full.

Another very common contraction is n’t, which is short for ‘not’ and is used to make negative words such as isn’t, wouldn’t, and haven’t.

Finally, there are two words which probably cause more problems with apostrophes than any others: it’s and who’s.  These are contractions and are short for it/who is or it/who has:

It’s very cold in here.

It’s been a long time since we met.

Who’s coming to the park?

Who’s got the camera?

For talking about possession, we use its and whose:

Look at that chair – its leg has broken.

Whose shoes are these?

Apostrophes may look complicated, but really the rules about their use are quite simple, so I hope this blog has made them clearer. Do leave a comment if you would like help with any other aspect of punctuation, grammar or vocabulary.

50 thoughts on “How to use apostrophes (’)

  1. Maja

    What about the apostrophe to make plural of the letters of alphabet? Like, when you want to say e.g. that you got three A’s and a B in English?

    1. Liz Walter

      It’s best to avoid apostrophes in cases like this if possible, but it’s acceptable to use them if there otherwise might be confusion about the meaning.

    1. Giuseppe Longo

      Yes, if you use apostrophes. But it looks as though you typed acute accents ´´´ rather than apostrophes ”’.

      Version with apostrophes,
      “Where’s Ana’s son’s girlfriend?”

  2. Cristóbal

    Hey there!
    I think it would be great help if you could give us some tips (differences) on how to use the ” ‘s” and the preposition “of” when talking about posession. Sometimes it’s quite hard to tell the diferente or the correcta use.
    Eg:
    – My brother’s house is far from the city
    – The house of my brother is far from the city

    Thanks in advance!
    Cristóbal

    1. Liz Walter

      HI Cristobal. The simplest advice is always to use ‘s. ‘The house of my brother’ sounds rather literary and is not common in normal or even formal use.

      1. Cristóbal

        Thank you very much, Liz.
        Still, I think it would be quite fruitful if you could porivide us with firther information and more examples.
        The examples given on my comment above may not be the best to describe how confusing the use of that structure can sometimes be.
        Thanks a lot!

      2. Hello, Liz and Cristobal!
        Is it true that we should use the Possessive Case mostly for animated things? I mean, people and animals.
        I’ve read that we should use ‘s in cases like “John’s book”, “The dog’s bone”, but “the leg of the table” or “the roof of the house”, instead of “the table’s leg” or “the house’s roof”.

        I recall reading something about some time expressions using ‘s as well.

        Thanks in advance.

      3. Giuseppe Longo

        @Marcos: yes, that’s the general idea: apostrophe for people and animate objects, “of” for other things.

        For organizations/groups, both are possible, e.g.
        “Microsoft’s new boss”
        “The new boss of Microsoft”

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Nandini – you’re not the only one to ask for help with prepositions. Keep looking and I’ll try to write something for you!

  3. Mustaq Ahmmed

    Thanks Liz for your informative article. Do you have any plan to write article “the use of semicolon”, learner like me will be benefited.

  4. Sabir Molla

    Hi Liz,
    My question is – Is there any restriction of use between ain’t and aren’t in writing or speaking?
    They have same meaning. Haven’t they?

    1. Liz Walter

      Emilie: see my comment below to Cristobal. The safest thing is to use ‘s all the time for people and ‘of’ for objects.

  5. Julio

    Hi, I’ve learned that the third use of “‘s” is with Country, City, places names, etc. For example, “Brazil’s president is a woman”.

  6. Liz Walter

    Cristobal
    I’ve been thinking about this some more. I think we tend to use ‘of’ for inanimate objects, e.g. ‘the leg of the chair’, ‘the wheel of the car’. As I said, I think it’s best to avoid it for people. For ‘s, there are lots of examples in the blog.

    1. Cristóbal

      Liz,
      Thanks again for your help. I’ll keep un mind that hint un order to improve my English and make it sound more natural.
      I’ll be doing some digging on the subject. Should I find any grammatical rule or something, I’ll let you all know.
      Looking forward to reading more of these interesting and fruitful posts.
      Kind regards,
      Cristóbal

  7. jessy

    Hello. could you please help me out with this question ? if there was a party yesterday and my friends attended it but i didn’t , and the next day when i meet them they tell me all about how fun it was and i say: HOW COULD I MISS IT or HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED IT which one is correct and why? much obliged

  8. Thanh

    I greatly wonder about your guidance: ” We do not use them for plurals!! If you are in an English-speaking country, you will see many signs in shops and cafés advertising ‘tomato’s’, ‘pizza’s’, ‘sandwich’s’, etc. This is incorrect”.
    So, why are they written like that? Many thanks.

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s a good question, Thanh! It’s just because many people, including mother-tongue English speakers, don’t understand the rules. A lot of other people get very annoyed about it! It is definitely not correct English to do this.

  9. Fiona

    A question about when just to use an apostrophe at the end of a name ending with ‘s’, as I’m not sure what you mean by formal writing in this context:
    “For singular words ending in ‘s’, you can add either ’s or – for more formal writing – just the apostrophe: Tess’s phone number, Ben Holmes’s friend, Dickens’ novels.”

    I have always put it down to pronunciation – out loud you might choose to say Dickens’ or you might say Dickens’s, St James’ or St James’s (if you tried to say Thucydides’s you’d be in trouble, formal or not).

    However, there is quite a lot of variation, and there are book titles where the second ‘s’ does not appear even though it would be pronounced.

    Is this more of an American thing?

  10. H Devaraja Rao

    Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.
    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,
    Charles’s friend
    Burns’s poems
    the witch’s malice

    Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake

    The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.
    — Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

    Similarly, Dickens’s, not Dickens’ (which looks like a plural) and certainly not Dicken’s, which would mean ‘of Dicken’. Keats’s, not Keats’, and certainly not Keat’s.

    Only classical names ending in s (Brutus, Perseus) tend to break this rule; but it is better, in practice, to keep the rule intact and write ‘of Brutus’, ‘of Perseus’. In fact, whenever the apostrophe s would lead to awkward cacophony, the ‘of + noun’ construction is preferable.

    A good number of journalists in reputable broad sheets struggle with the apostrophe in phrases like ‘in two day’s time’ or some similar, missing the point that the word time is tautological and can be omitted.

    Apple’s $3 per pound
    There’s even a term for the gratuitous inclusion of these marks: greengrocer’s apostrophe.

  11. Hilaire

    Hello Liz,
    Thank you for this article.
    You mentioned the use of apostrophe to refer to the workplace of a profession: “go to the doctor’s, etc.”.
    Using a determiner such as in “She arrived at my home” seems correct to me.
    But what about possessive pronouns? I have heard that we could use them with an apostrophe to refer to someone’s place, e.g. “She arrived at mine’s/yours’/hers’/theirs'”.
    Would you be so kind as to clarify, please?

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Hilaire: That’s an easy one to answer: never use apostrophes with possessive pronouns (It is her coat/The coat is hers)

  12. Cristóbal

    Dear Liz,
    I’ve tried to find and email address to contact you with regard to another question that came up to my mind today – and I think it might be useful for everybody.
    Here’s the thing: the use of the words “especially and specially”.
    I’ve done some reading but, so far, I can’t be sure I get the difference.
    I look forward to hearing from you!

    Kind regards,
    Cristóbal

  13. YIKES!
    Forming the possessive is extremely easy. Always add [‘s] unless the word is PLURAL and ends in S.
    Bridget Jones’s Diary; Bridget is the Joneses’ daughter.
    Exceptions are confusing and unnecessary (and can be ambiguous). I object to the implication that English speakers have difficulty pronouncing more than one or two ‘S’s. I can pronounce Thucydides’s name as well as Moses’s name and isosceles. A couple of years ago I noticed The Economist wrote Jesus’s name with the possessive S (and their offices are on St James’s Street).
    You’ll also find Dickens’s name has the possessive S, not often you bump into a couple with the last name Dicken.
    btw, wrt the chair, more likely one wd say that its leg is broken.
    Otherwise, helpful.

  14. Pingback: How to use apostrophes (’) – About words – Hable English

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