Apostrophes are like weeds. Sometimes they crop up in the most unexpected places. How do you know when and where to use an apostrophe? Let’s set the record straight.
First rule — possession
Use an apostrophe + s to show possession for singular nouns.
- The dog’s leash
- The mailman’s bag
- The book’s cover
What about singular nouns that end in s like bus? You can handle it one of two ways, depending on which style guide you’re using or your editor’s preference.
- The bus’s front tire
- The bus’ front tire.
Some journalists use an apostrophe + s for regular nouns like bus’s, but use the apostrophe alone for proper nouns ending in s like Jones’ or Hastings’.
Follow your clients’ style guides to determine how to handle possession singular nouns that end in s. Or if you don’t have a style guide, pick one and stick to it.
Use an apostrophe after the s to show possession for plural nouns.
- The mailboxes’ flags
- The girls’ dresses
- The books’ dust jackets
The key is to understand how to make plurals first before even thinking about possessive forms. NOTE: Never use an apostrophe + s to make a regular noun or a proper noun plural.
- Tuesday’s are bad should be Tuesdays are bad
- A decade of Christmas’s should be A decade of Christmases
- Pork chop’s on sale should be pork chops on sale
- We visited the Rios’s should be we visited the Rioses
Add an es to the end of regular nouns ending in s to make them plural. Then add an apostrophe after the last s to make it possessive.
- Actress (singular) | actresses (plural) | actresses’ roles (plural possessive)
- Gas (singular) | gases (plural) | gases’ odors (plural possessive)
Now to add a few monkey wrenches:
What do you do about proper nouns that end in s?
- Jones (singular) | Joneses (plural) | the Joneses’ house
What do you do about irregular nouns?
- Child (singular) | children (plural) | the children’s playground (plural possessive)
- Mouse (singular) | mice (plural) | the mice’s nests (plural possessive)
Remember, you can always rewrite sentences that sound weird. For example:
- The playground used by the children needed repairs.
- We uncovered dozens of nests the mice made.
Use an apostrophe + s after the second name only when two people possess the same item.
- Kaley and Andrew’s cat loves to climb the curtains.
- Amanda and Josh’s new house is under construction.
Use an apostrophe + s at the end of a compound noun to show possession.
- My mother-in-law’s hat was hideous.
NOTE: If your compound noun is plural, make the plural first and then add an apostrophe + s at the end to form the possessive.
- His three brothers-in-law’s cars were all brand new.
Second rule — contractions
Use an apostrophe to show missing letters in contractions.
- Wasn’t for "was not"
- It’s for "it is"
- You’d for "you had"
- Doesn’t for "does not"
- Y’all for "you all"
Third rule — personal pronouns
Personal pronouns NEVER use apostrophes.
- Hers, yours, ours, its, theirs, whose, and oneself
NOTE: It’s and who’s are both contractions. They have nothing to do with possessives.
Fourth rule — abbreviations, single letters, and numbers
There are no hard and fast rules for these. But sometimes using an apostrophe + s seems necessary and sometimes it seems awkward.
- The teacher warned them to dot all their i’s.
If you didn’t use an apostrophe, i’s would be read confusingly as is.
- She learned her ABCs this week.
This works better without an apostrophe.
- They consulted with three M.D.s.
This is awkward. M.D.’s is better.
Fifth rule — no apostrophes for nouns used as adjectives
Nouns masquerading as adjectives before other nouns don’t need an apostrophe + s. Here are some examples:
- You’ve never seen neon like the Las Vegas lights.
In this sentence, Las Vegas is an adjective describing the lights. Thus, there’s no need for an apostrophe. Here’s another one:
- Everyone likes that Beatles song.
Here, Beatles is describing the type of song. Likewise:
- I am a United States citizen.
Watch out for singular words ending in y that suddenly show possession. Here’s a great example:
- Correct: the company’s policy
- Incorrect: the companies policy
If you were referring to three or more businesses, you would write:
- Correct: three companies’ policies
- Incorrect: three company’s policies
So, did that make everything clear? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below.