Apostrophes are used to form possessives, contractions, and omissions. While it’s an important punctuation mark, apostrophes have many rules that can be tricky to master.
Apostrophe as Omissions and Contractions
If a word or phrase is shortened and an apostrophe is used to replace omitted letters or sounds, it is called a contraction. Symbolizing the missing letters, apostrophes are mostly used when verbs, modals, and auxiliaries are attached to pronouns.
Example: He cannot – He can’t
She would – She’d
It will – It’ll
They are not – They aren’t
You are – You’re
While these contractions are less commonly used, apostrophes can also be used to denote a unique speaking style of a particular region or time in history. It can also be used to contract decade names.
Example: nothing – nothin’
never – ne’er
you all – y’all
The 1990s – The ‘90s
As contractions are considered to be casual or informal, refrain from using them in formal or academic writing. Although, there are times when you can use contractions when writing for formal purposes. In these exceptions, the contracted word is more commonly used than its full form.
Example: o’clock – of the clock
Apostrophes with Possessive Nouns
Depending on the kind of possessive noun, the rules on using apostrophes have minor differences. That’s why, when it comes to using apostrophes with possessive nouns, the rules can cause a lot of confusion.
When it comes to most plural nouns, add the apostrophe after the “s”.
Example: The kids’ hats are vibrant.
The tables’ design feels exotic.
The doctors’ advice is important.
When it comes to most singular nouns, add the apostrophe before the “s”.
Example: The kid’s hat is vibrant.
The table’s design feels exotic.
The doctor’s advice is important.
If the plural noun doesn’t end with a “s”, add the apostrophe followed by a “s”.
Example: The sheep’s legs have healed.
The children’s food is delicious.
The stone’s jagged edges could cut your finger.
If the singular noun ends with a “s”, the apostrophe has to be added depending on the style guide you follow. In some style guides, it advises that only the apostrophe be added after the word.
Example: Mrs. Bynes’ necklace is missing.
Athens’ climate is warm.
Other style guides advise adding an apostrophe followed by a “s”.
Example: Mrs. Bynes’s necklace is missing.
Athens’s climate is warm.
No matter what style guide you follow, when punctuating plural proper nouns ending with “s”, remember to add an apostrophe after the word.
Example: The Bynes’ family heirloom is missing.
The family picture of the Johnsons’ is beautifully framed.
If you are not required to follow a particular style guide, you can choose any recommendation from the style guide of your choice. Just remember to be consistent with your punctuation throughout the writing of any kind of document or paper.
Apostrophes with Possessive Pronouns
Pronouns, like your, mine, her and his, that denote possessiveness are called possessive pronouns. When writing regular pronouns, apostrophes should never be used to form possessives. The confusion comes from possessive pronouns that end with “s”. It is important to remember that by adding an apostrophe, the possessive pronoun can turn into a contraction.
Example: That bag is mine. (not my’s or me’s)
His pen writes well (not his’s)
This house is ours. (not our’s)
That car is hers. (not her’s)
Apostrophes and Joint Possessions
If, in a sentence, something belongs to two people, then the apostrophe should go next to the second person’s name.
Example: Jim and Claire’s review would help students.
Connor, Will and April’s pet dog fell sick.
If, in a sentence, different things are owned by different people, add an apostrophe next to both people’s names.
Example: Jim’s and Claire’s reviews would help students.
Connor’s, Will’s and April’s pet dogs fell sick.
As sentences containing joint possessions tend to sound awkward, the best thing to do is to rephrase the sentence to avoid any kind of joint possessions.
Example: You are in-charge of hers and my house.
You are in-charge of her house and mine.
Apostrophes with Plurals
It is a very common mistake to add an apostrophe to make a singular word into its plural form. While there are some exceptions, apostrophes usually don’t turn singular words into its plural form. One common exception to this rule is the use of apostrophes to denote plural forms of lowercase letters. This exception is used to avoid incorrect interpretations and misleading meanings.
Example: These dress style’s are very popular (Incorrect)
These dress styles are very popular (Correct)
Highlight all the is in this lesson. (Incorrect)
Highlight all the i’s in this lesson. (Correct)
Apostrophes with Other Punctuation Marks
If there is another punctuation mark next to an apostrophe, the punctuation mark should not come between the apostrophe and the word it is being used on.
Example: The jolly season’? Tis is! (Incorrect)
The jolly season? ’Tis is! (Incorrect)
The jolly season? ‘Tis is! (Correct)
Also, to be noticed in the second (incorrect) example is the apostrophe of ‘Tis. The apostrophe is actually a single quotation mark. Not uncommon, apostrophes used before a contracted word tend to be wrongly written or typed as a single quotation mark. Especially when writing or typing contractions of decades, like the ‘80s or ‘90s, be careful to not use the wrong punctuation.
Checking Style Guides
There will be instances when you aren’t sure whether to use apostrophes in certain situations or not. At times like this, it is best to check a trusted and complete style guide. Two commonly followed style guides are Chicago Manual or the AP Stylebook. A comprehensive dictionary can also help in such situations. If you still can’t find standard rules or guidelines on the topic, then it’s best to rephrase your sentence. This is because, when it comes to using apostrophes, using your wild imagination and boundless creativity can ultimately weaken your writing.