Apostrophe Rules

Apostrophes (') can be confusing, even for native English speakers. However, they aren't difficult to master if you can remember a few apostrophe rules.

Apostrophes serve two basic functions; they show possession and indicate letters have been removed to form a contraction. Let's begin with an examination of apostrophes at work and then we'll break down all the rules.

Apostrophes at Work

You'll notice apostrophes aren't necessary when forming plural nouns or possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, their, our, its).

In the following story, apostrophes are being used for multiple purposes. Let's take a look at where they are and how they're functioning:

Robert and Lisa Smith have two beautiful children. Amy is nine and Ross is seven. The Smiths' house has two floors. The children's rooms are upstairs, and the parents' bedroom is downstairs. Lisa's room is always clean while Ross's room is always messy. The Smiths' lives are very busy this week. Ross's sports teams all have games. Amy's ballet class has a recital and Robert's car is in the shop. So, the Joneses are trying to get everything done with only Lisa's car. Today, they've been to school, practice, rehearsal, the grocery store, and the veterinarian's office. Mind you, they aren't finished yet. They'll be busy until late tonight and, tomorrow, they'll do it all again.

Apostrophe Rules for Possessives

It would be difficult for possessives to exist without apostrophes. Let's take a look at three different ways apostrophes dance around possessive words.

1. Use an apostrophe + S ('s) to show that one person/thing owns or is a member of something.

  • Amy's ballet class, Lisa's car, Robert's car, Ross's room, Ross's sports teams

Yes, even if the name ends in "s," it's still correct to add another "'s" to create the possessive form. It is also acceptable to add only an apostrophe to the end of singular nouns that end in "s" to make them possessive. In this case, you can show possession for Ross either way:

  • Ross'

  • Ross's

It makes no difference whether the item owned is singular or plural. We use "Ross's" to say that the room (singular) is his and that the sports teams (plural) are his.

2. Use an apostrophe after the "s" at the end of a plural noun to show possession.

  • The parents' bedroom, the Smiths' lives

It is not necessary to add another "s" to the end of a possessive plural noun.

3. If a plural noun doesn't end in "s," add an apostrophe + "s" to create the possessive form.

  • The children's rooms

Remember, a possessive noun needs an apostrophe and an "s" at the end. If there's already an "s" there, you can just add the apostrophe. If there's no "s," you have to add both - first the apostrophe, and then the "s."

Apostrophe Rule for Contractions

There's really only one rule for apostrophes and contractions, aside from careful placement:

1. When you combine two words to make a contraction, you will always take out some letters. In their place, use an apostrophe.

  • they + have = they've; are + not = aren't; they + will = they'll

Imagine you're on a submarine that's diving deep into the ocean. As you dive deeper and deeper, the water pressure becomes greater. If you go too deep, the water will squeeze the submarine so hard it'll begin to leak, and you'll need to put something into the hole to stop the leak.

The same thing happens when you squeeze two words together. Something pops out. And, wherever it comes out, you must place an apostrophe to plug the hole. The one exception to this rule is the contraction "won't," which is "will + not."

Apostrophe Rules Summary

English apostrophe rules are not difficult to master. Just remember that all possessives need an apostrophe and an "s" at the end. If the word already has an "s," it only needs an apostrophe. If the word does not already have an "s," it needs the apostrophe followed by "s."

As for contractions, the only apostrophe rule you need to remember is the same one you learned as a teenager. If you snuck out of the house at night, you had to put pillows under the sheets to make it look like you were still sleeping. In other words, if you take something out, replace it with something else. Then squish everything together so it looks like one body.

Now, are you ready for some fun? Check out When NOT to Use an Apostrophe!

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