Rules and examples for when and how to use apostrophes in contractions or for possessive nouns.
Most everyone gets taught when and how to properly use apostrophes in elementary school, but apparently not everyone was eagerly paying attention, hoping to be a celebrated grammarian when they grew up. As a result of this understandable lack of enthusiasm, many find themselves still making apostrophe errors far beyond school age. Apostrophes are hardly dinner-party conversation, and somewhat forgettable even when one is writing, but all too often it's maddening not to know how to use such a teensy-weensy, and downright useful, piece of punctuation. Here are a few tips:
Apostrophes show possession.
When you want to show that one thing has ownership of something, simply tack on an apostrophe and an 's.'
My dog's bone.
This is the easiest concept. If your dog has a bone, that's your dog's bone. There is just one dog here, but we add an 's' and an apostrophe to show that the bone belongs to the dog. If you have more than one dog you have dogs. The 's' now shows a plural, not possession. As in:
My dogs like bones.
The above sentence makes no comment about the bones belonging to the dogs. The dogs simply like them. There is no apostrophe needed.
Maybe you have two dogs with two bones, eh? Then you can refer to your dogs' bones. When you need to show possession on a plural noun that ends in 's', you simply add an apostrophe and no additional 's.'
My dogs' bones are chewed to bits.
The group of actors' costumes were in disrepair.
The five families' houses were all on Taylor Street.
Some plural words do not end in 's,' however. In those cases, we do add an additional 's.' As in:
The women's purses were all stuffed with coupons.
The two mice's favorite cheese was cheddar.
Some get confused trying to show joint possession. If two people (or things) have joint possession of one object, we need only use an apostrophe and an 's' after the last person or thing.
James and Katie's house overlooked a secluded forest.
The dog and cat's owner was somewhat senile.
However, if we want to show separate possession of two things, we must use separate apostrophes.
James's and Katie's cars were parked side by side in the driveway.
The dog's and cat's food bowls were both empty.
Here, both James and Katie have possession of a car, and both the dog and cat have a food bowl.
Note: Some singular nouns already end in 's,' such as James, Chris, or Phyllis. The rule still applies that singular nouns need both an 's' and an apostrophe to show possession. However, if pronouncing the word would be awkward with both an 's' an apostrophe then it is acceptable to simply use an apostrophe, as in, "James' wife is an excellent cook."
Some words have possession built in such as: his, hers, their, theirs, my, your, and yours. No apostrophes are needed here. Special note: "Its" is a possessive pronoun just like his, hers, your, etc. It denotes something belonging to "it" and needs no apostrophe.
She handed me a book. Its pages were torn and stained.
Daniel drank the milk despite the fact its due date was past.
The word "it's" is a contraction for "it is." If the form of its/it's is in question, see if it can be replaced by "it is." If it can, then it's the contraction form and needs an apostrophe.
I won't display that art on my wall - it's hideous!
It's time for the show to start.
I don't want to play with the dog if all it's going to do is run in circles.
There is one exception where and apostrophe and an 's' are needed to create a plural instead of show possession, and that is to show plurals of lower case letters.
Remember to dot your i's and cross your t's.
Apostrophes are also used to show the omission of letters, such as in contractions. In the word "don't" the apostrophe takes the place of the 'o.' They can also sometimes take the place of numbers:
My mother says the '60s were a crazy time.
Apostrophes and their uses and misuses may not keep anyone awake at night, but hopefully these tips help alleviate any sort of conundrum they may cause. Once mastered, they ought to serve us well and help us form clear, confident writing. Happy punctuating!
Purdue Owl, "The Apostrophe". Purdue University. March 23, 2010 <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/1/>.
Writing Center of Vanguard University, "Writing Center - Handouts". Vanguard University of Southern California. March 23, 2010 http://www.vanguard.edu/writingcenter/tabid/2171/Default.aspx.