Little tweaks—like a comma, question mark, or an apostrophe—can make or break the flow or meaning of a sentence. For grammar and punctuation nerds, a poorly placed apostrophe especially brings chills. (These clever grammar jokes, on the other hand, can make everything better.)
What is an apostrophe?
Apostrophes are the curly floating commas in sentences that usually indicate possession or a contraction. There are a few set phrases and holidays, however, that also use apostrophes. In fact, apostrophes have some of the most confusing grammar rules in the English language.
When to use an apostrophe
Use apostrophes when combining words
Contractions, or shortened groups of words, use the apostrophe to replace the missing letter. For example, if you want to connect “do not,” you can use an apostrophe to replace the “o” making the new word “don’t.” Other common words that are often combined include not, are, would, had, and will. These omissions make words and sentences easier to read and write, too. (Get to know the separate words everyone combines into one—but shouldn’t.)
Use apostrophes to show ownership or possession
You don’t just randomly decide when to use an apostrophe. For most singular nouns, you add an apostrophe and “s” to make it possessive or to show ownership. For example, “The cat’s litter box.” Most plural nouns only need an apostrophe, such as, “The dogs’ leashes.” Plural nouns not ending in “s” need both an apostrophe and “s.” Plus, if something isn’t usually plural, you also add an apostrophe and “s.” For example, “Make sure to dot your T’s and cross your I’s.”
Use apostrophes for certain holidays and some dates
Apostrophe rules get confusing when it comes to holidays since some have an apostrophe while others don’t. For example, Canadians celebrate Mother’s Day and April Fools’ Day—both with different apostrophe uses. Make sure to look up the proper spelling of the particular holiday name before jotting it down.
When to use an apostrophe for dates depends on how you want to write the date. Don’t add an apostrophe “s” to the end of the whole number. Instead, for abbreviated dates, put the apostrophe in the front. So both, “Big hair was popular in the 1980s,” and, “Big hair was popular in the ’80s” are correct.
When not to use an apostrophe
Don’t use apostrophes to make a word plural, unless there’s possession
Adding an “s” or “es” make words plural without the help of an apostrophe. If the subject of the sentence is already plural, however, add the apostrophe after the “s.” Like the earlier example, “The dogs’ leashes.” Adding unnecessary apostrophes may be one of the spelling and grammar mistakes spell check won’t catch.
Some words require an entire spelling change instead of an apostrophe
On the other hand, personal pronouns do not use apostrophes to form possessives. Instead, these pronouns have different spellings. So “they” become “their” to show possession. Another example is “it.” If you want to indicate possession, use “its.” Never use “its,'” and only use “it’s” if you’re going to use a contraction for “it is.”
As for numbers that aren’t years, you shouldn’t add an apostrophe plus “s” to the end. So if you’re talking about age, the man is in his 30s—not his 30’s. Using apostrophes correctly is one easy way to boost your writing. Now that you know when to use an apostrophe, make your high school English teachers proud by avoiding these grammatical errors even smart people make.