When to use an apostrophe

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For such a tiny punctuation mark, the apostrophe can cause major headaches. But why are apostrophes so difficult to use? And, most importantly, how exactly do you use them?

This short guide to the apostrophe outlines the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Why is it so hard to use an apostrophe?

If you wonder whether to use an apostrophe every time you write a word ending in “s”, you’re not alone. The apostrophe is a notoriously pernickety piece of punctuation – and for good reason.

Chances are, you never worry about apostrophes when you’re speaking – and that’s because they’re silent in spoken English. We don’t pronounce employers any differently from employer’s; more often than not, when speaking, it’s clear from the context whether you’re referring to several employers or something that belongs to one employer.

Since we tend to learn language through speech first, and our writing reflects what we say, it’s no wonder if you’re left scratching your head when you go to write the employers’ meeting.

Another obstacle to “correct” apostrophe use is the fact that apostrophes serve two different purposes: they’re used when a letter is missing (as in can’t or let’s) and they’re used to form possessives (as in Peter’s or London’s).

And finally, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. So even if you sort out your contractions from your possessives, there’s still a chance you could misstep.

The grocer’s apostrophe

A hand holding a phone with a shopping list, highlighting the incorrect use of an apostrophe in the plural form "egg's".

See if you can find the mistakes in the shopping list above…

Apostrophes are so commonly misused that one particular error has its own name: the grocer’s apostrophe.

Thought to be coined in the middle of the twentieth century, this mistake (also called the greengrocer’s apostrophe) refers to the incorrect use of this punctuation mark on shop signs, typically in plural nouns, such as: Apple’s, orange’s and banana’s for sale!

So, how do you use an apostrophe?

Clearly, it’s easy to use apostrophes incorrectly – but I’m sure that’s not why you’re reading this blog post.

Two cases call for apostrophe use: possessive nouns and contractions.

Use an apostrophe to create contractions

Let’s start with contractions. In most cases, this is when two words are “contracted” into one, for example does not becomes doesn’t.

This might sound complicated, but some of our most commonly used words are contractions.

Many common contractions are negatives like can’t, don’t, shouldn’t, which are short for cannot, do not, and should not. The apostrophes mark the missing letters.

Other examples include: she’ll, I’m, there’s – short for she will, I am, and there is.

Start looking for them, and you’ll notice them everywhere.

How to use an apostrophe for possession

A dog peeking out of its wooden kennel, with food and water bowls in the foreground, representing the proper use of a possessive apostrophe for singular nouns.

There is only one dog here, so we’d say it’s the dog’s kennel if she shared it with her sister, it’d be the dogs’ kennel

The other time to use an apostrophe is to indicate possession after a singular noun, for example Johann’s coat or the town’s roads. The apostrophe comes before the final “s”.


Maybe so – but what do you do if the last letter of the word is already “s”, as in Mr Jones or bus? Should it be Mr Jones’s and bus’s? Or Mr Jones’ and bus’?

Different style guides take different approaches to this subject, but a good rule of thumb is to write it as you would say it: you’d pronounce the extra “s” in both these cases, so it’s best to keep them in.

Following this principle, there are some words ending in “s” for which you wouldn’t add the extra “s” when indicating possession, for example Socrates’ writings.

Another case when you wouldn’t add the extra “s” to indicate possession is for most plural nouns, like parents or dogs, for example: my parents’ house and the dogs’ kennel.

However, for plural nouns with an irregular spelling – like children or people – it’s worth noting that these follow the usual rule: the children’s playroom or the people’s choice.

Still with me?

OK, so what do you do when you have more than one noun in a sentence? For instance, should it be John and Jack’s wedding or John’s and Jack’s wedding?

This one depends on the context. If it’s both John’s wedding and Jack’s wedding, then you only need the apostrophe once: there’s only one wedding, and (for the purpose of the sentence) John and Jack are essentially one unit: It’s John and Jack’s wedding today.

If John and Jack are both getting married on the same day but separately, both names need a possessive apostrophe: Both John’s and Jack’s weddings are today.

Exceptions to the rules

In grammar, as in life, there are always exceptions.

It’s vs its

Let’s start with contractions. A very common mistake is where to put the apostrophe in “it’s”. Here are some examples.

It’s raining. This means it is raining, so the apostrophe is correct: it marks the missing “i” in “is”.

The cat washed its face. This is correct. But wait: the face belongs to the cat, so shouldn’t it have an apostrophe? No: with “its”, you only ever use an apostrophe to mean “it is”.

Whose vs who’s

The same principle applies to “whose” and “who’s”.

Who’s at the door? Who’s got a menu? Both of these examples are contractions: Who is at the door? Who has got a menu? So the apostrophes are correct.

I don’t know whose book this is. This sentence is asking who the book belongs to, so it’s possessive – but, likeits”, it doesn’t use an apostrophe.

Often, it’s easiest to learn the rule. But if it helps to understand why these confusing rules exist in the first place, let’s take a quick look at the grammar.

“Its” and “whose” are possessive pronouns, like mine, yours, hers, his, ours and theirs. Possessive pronouns never take an apostrophe.

If you’re unsure whether you need “whose” or “who’s”, see if you can make the sentence into a question and then answer it.

For example, the sentence I don’t know whose book this is, could be made into the question: Whose book is this?

In answer to this question, you could answer “mine” or “Emma’s” or “ours” – all of which are possessive. This means “whose” is a possessive pronoun, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe.

On the flip side, let’s take: Who’s at the door? It doesn’t make sense to answer “Mine”. This tells us that “who’s” is not a possessive but a contraction, so you do need an apostrophe.

When not to use an apostrophe

A red no entry sign against a backdrop of trees and hills, indicating when not to use an apostrophe for plural nouns.

Here’s what not to do!

Plural nouns ending in “s” – like parents or dogs – never use an apostrophe. Remember the grocer’s apostrophe: if you have lots of something (oranges, apples, bananas) you don’t use an apostrophe.

Unless (of course there’s an “unless”!) something belongs to a plural noun, as we’ve already seen in the examples above: my parents’ house and the dogs’ kennel.

Apostrophes in numbers

The only time you need an apostrophe in a number is when a number is omitted – like in contractions. For example: the class of ’99 or the ’60s. In both these cases, the apostrophe indicates that “19” is missing (i.e. the class of 1999 or the 1960s).

It’s also worth noting that, in both cases, the apostrophe should be curving towards the missing numbers, just as it curves towards the missing letters in words like can’t and shouldn’t.

You never need an apostrophe in decades, such as 1960s or 1900s.

Similarly, when you’re talking about more than one number – for instance, there are two 5s on this dice – you don’t need an apostrophe because, in this example, 5 is essentially a noun.

Do apostrophes still matter?

If so many people get apostrophes wrong, why can’t we just drop them all together? After all, it’s only an apostrophe.

In writing, apostrophes are still useful for clarity. For instance, take the sentence: I went to stay at my grandparents house. Am I staying with one grandparent or more?

If it’s one, it would be grandparent’s house. If it’s two (or more), it would be grandparents’ house.

Apostrophes also help clarity when it comes to contractions.

If we removed the apostrophe from some contractions, it might still be clear what is meant: dont, couldnt, lets.

But others are more likely to cause confusion: shell, cant, wont.

What to do if you’re still confused

A frustrated woman biting a pencil while working on a laptop, surrounded by colored pencils, exemplifying the struggle of knowing when to use an apostrophe.

If you’re still unsure, don’t worry. We’re here to help!

The more you read well-edited and proofread sources, such as published books or newspapers, the more you’ll see correct apostrophe use. This will help you start to see what looks right – and what look’s wrong.

But if you’ve got an important document that requires absolutely no mistakes, it’s best to get a professional proofreader or editor on the case. Get in touch with us via [email protected] for a free quote.


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