English apostrophes can be a very confusing subject for English learners. Here are some basic rules for you to follow that will get it right most of the time:
1. English apostrophes can show contraction of 2 words
An apostrophe normally indicates that 2 words have been contracted. Eg: “There is” becomes “There’s” or “You are” becomes “You’re“. It helps to think of the apostrophe as a replacement for the invisible missing letter. Here are few more examples:
- He is -> He’s
- The car is -> The car’s
- My friends have -> My friends’ve (this is not commonly used but still valid. Why? Contractions around long words are awkward to say)
2. English apostrophes show possession or ownership
This is where the apostrophe confusion really starts! Apostrophes can be used to show that someone owns something. Eg:
- That window in the house -> That house’s window
- This bicycle belongs to Fred -> Fred’s bicycle (this does not mean a contraction! It is not “Fred is bicycle”! If in doubt say the expanded version to yourself and if it sounds silly, then you’re probably looking at a possession apostrophe.)
- The gas tank in my car -> My car’s gas tank
3. No apostrophes with plural nouns
Before we get to the next version of English apostrophes it’s worth mentioning the standard case where no apostrophe is required. That’s when we’re using the plural version of words. The golden rule to remember: if there’s no possession or contraction then there’s no apostrophe.
- Car -> Cars
- Burger -> Burgers
- Cup -> Cups
4. Apostrophes with plural AND possession
This is where apostrophe apocalypse really starts! What if you have 3 cars and they all belong to Fred? In this case we have possession because Fred owns them! Note that there is only one Fred so it becomes:
- These cars belong to Fred -> Fred’s cars
Now what if we start talking about multiple doors on multiple cars? In that case we have multiple owners of the multiple objects! This is how we solve it (using an intermediate, incorrect step):
- The doors on the cars -> The cars’s doors (bad grammar) -> The cars’ doors (correct grammar)
You’ll notice that we chopped off the last “s” from “cars’s”. This is because saying “s’s” is quite awkward. Hence we drop the last “s”. However it is still pronounced the same. There is no tone or speech difference between car’s or cars’. We can only tell them apart by context in the speech or if they’re written down.
There are exceptions to this rule. If a singular owner is present but their name ends with an “s” then you can use double “s’s”. It’s pronounced “jame-sys”:
- This is James car -> This is James’s car (valid and used by some people)
5. Special mention: Possessive pronouns like “mine” or “theirs”
We never use apostrophes with possessive pronouns. A possessive pronoun indicates possession already so we don’t need to repeat ourselves!
- This is his book (no apostrophe after his)
- That is their car
6. English apostrophe nuclear bomb (its vs it’s)
The one case that messes many people up is that of its vs it’s. When you see this it can mean contraction OR possession.
- It’s a fire engine (apostrophe means this is a contraction)
- He took its door off (possessive pronoun already so it doesn’t need an apostrophe!)
Again, if you’re confused then simply add an apostrophe and expand it to see if it sounds right. “He took its door off” -> “He took it is door off” doesn’t sound right does it?
7. Finally for English Apostrophes: One letter words, numbers and abbreviations
One letter words that need to be plural do NOT use an apostrophe if they are upper case but do if they are LOWER case:
- He scored several As in his tests (many people would write A’s which is incorrect)
- You need to cross your i’s (lower case one letter word “I” means you use an apostrophe even if there is no possession on the word itself!)
If you use an abbreviation, dates or numerals then there are no apostrophes:
- The MDs are in charge of that
- There are 2 stacks of 20s in my wallet
- The 90s were amazing years!