Apostrophe Rules: Easy Guide to Different Uses

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

possessive and contraction apostrophe rules possessive and contraction apostrophe rules

Apostrophe Uses

Apostrophes serve two basic functions in writing:

Learn more about the different ways apostrophes are used with an examination of possessives and contractions at work, including lots of examples.

Apostrophe Rules for Possessives

It would be difficult for possessives to exist without apostrophes. Let's take a look at three different uses of the possessive apostrophe.

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

Style guides vary when it comes to a name that ends in an "s." Even if the name ends in "s," it's still correct to add another "'s" to create the possessive form. It's 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 in either of two ways:

  • Ross' room
  • Ross's sports team

2. Use an apostrophe after the "s" (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
  • the tuna's beds

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 Rules for Joint Possessives

When you want to show that two people have ownership over something, it can get a little tricky. Whether you make both possessive or just the final one depends on the ownership.

Joint Ownership

If both people own the same item together, you can add the possessive to the final one.

  • Dave and Alice's car (Both Dave and Alice own the car.)
  • Tim and Jane's trip (Tim and Jane are going together on the trip.)
  • Darnell and Dylan's open house (Darnell and Dylan are having one open house.)

Separate Ownership

However, if each individual owns separate versions of the same type of item, then you would make both owners possessive. For example, if Dave and Alice both own a separate car, it would be "Alice's and Dave's cars. "

  • Darnell's and Dylan's open houses (two different open houses)
  • Tim's and Jane's trips (two separate trips)
  • Sally's and Steve's cottages (two different cottages)

Notice that when there are separate owners of the items, the items are plural.

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, you add an apostrophe.

  • they + have = they've (you took out "ha")
  • are + not = aren't (you took out "o")
  • they + will = they'll (you took out "wi")

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 a contraction of "will + not."


Apostrophes at Work

Are you ready to see apostrophes in action? 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 Smiths 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 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." However, when to use apostrophe "s" or an apostrophe after "s," can vary by preference for words that end in "s."

As for contractions, the only apostrophe rule you need to remember is that if you take something out, replace it with something else. Then squish everything together, so it looks like one word. Now, are you ready for some fun? Learn when NOT to use an apostrophe!