Apostrophes are running wild. They’re often used incorrectly or absent when needed. Some writers seem to insert them randomly, as if hopeful that a few might land in the right place; a prophylactic peppering of punctuation.
For the sake of clarity and your readers’ sanity, here’s a cheatsheet on when, why and how to use apostrophes, contractions and plurals.
Apostrophes are for Possession or Contraction
The English language uses apostrophes to show that letters or words are missing. (There are exceptions because English is old and ornery.) Use apostrophes to show:
- Possession: John’s dog = the dog belonging to John
- Contractions: Do not = Don’t
Possession: Possession means ownership. For possession the apostrophe replaces of or belonging to.
- Lucinda’s writing = the writing of Lucinda
- Allan’s key = the key belonging to Allan
- Ellen’s abilities = the abilities of Ellen
Contractions: A contraction is a shortening of two words into one. The apostrophe takes the place of letters or words.
- Can’t = can not
- Won’t = will not (this is one of those exceptions because you’d expect it to be win’t)
- Wouldn’t = would not
- Aren’t = are not
- Shan’t = shall not (this is old, not common anymore)
- Let’s = let us
- Ma’am = madam
Your means Belonging to you.
- Am I your best friend?
- Is that your dog?
You’re means You are.
- You’re choosing the dog over me?
The its/it’s issue is an exception, because the possessive doesn’t take an apostrophe. If I ran the world, we’d fix this exception. Until then, here’s how it works:
- Its means belonging to it: I like this house; its rooms are bigger.
- It’s means It is. It’s a big house. It’s the truth.
Plurals (usually) Don’t Take Apostrophes
Most words are made plural just by adding an ‘s’ as in dogs, cats and birds. Words that end in ‘y’ usually drop the ‘y’ and add ‘ies’ as in kitties, puppies and complies.
Never use an apostrophe if you mean more than one. For example, CD’s for sale is incorrect. CDs for sale is correct.
- The best dance music is from the 1980s.
- My daughter got all As and Bs on her report card.
Break that rule only when the reader could be confused:
- She spells her name with two i’s and three a’s.
- Have you said your thank you’s?
Most plurals don’t take an apostrophe; most possessives and contractions do.
Now you’re ready to make your writing more professional and understandable. The world will thank you for it.