Instructional Materials for Craig White's Literature Courses




for possessives & contractions

What's you're Problem?
What's your Problem?

(guide to punctuation)



In punctuation, the sign (') of an apostrophe indicates one of two speech inflections:


omission of a letter or letters, as in doesn't, they're, o'er, thro', can't, could've


possessive case, as in boy's, boys', women's.     (a.k.a. "genitive case")



Why do apostrophes matter? Are they more trouble than they're worth?


The death of the apostrophe has been predicted for years.


Many people struggle to use the apostrophe correctly; others toss them off incorrectly; some don't use apostrophes at all or can't tell the difference if they're there or not.


But the apostrophe never quite dies (at least for educated people) because it makes useful distinctions between similar-sounding or similar-looking words or phrases (e.g., its & it's).


Consider, for instance, these four phrases, each of which means something different depending on the positions of the apostrophes:


my sister's friend's books (refers to one sister and her friend)

my sister's friends' books (one sister with lots of friends)

my sisters' friend's books (more than one sister, and their friend)

my sisters' friends' books (more than one sister, and their friends)

                                                  (David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Random House UK, 2010)



[Instructor's answer to "Are apostrophes more trouble than they're worth?": Apostrophes make fine distinctions of meaning. If fine distinctions of meaning matter to you, then apostrophes matter.]


Why do smart people have trouble with apostrophes?


Most serious readers and writers can learn how and when to use apostrophes, but everyone has trouble with them sometimes. Why?


Compared to other forms of punctuation, you can't hear apostrophes. A comma can be heard as a pause, breath, or shift; a period by a stop; a question mark by rising intonation; or an exclamation by an increase in emphasis or volume.


Apostrophes give no auditory cues.


For example, in the following two sentences the first three words sound identical, but one visual difference—an apostrophe—changes the meaning and even the relations of the words:


The girls bike to the store and back.


The girl's bike had a flat tire.


Both sentences are correct—you can see the difference between "girls" and "girl's," but you cannot hear the difference except in the larger context of the sentence's meaning. Therefore, if you're not paying attention to the way the words look and are waiting for an auditory prompt to put in an apostrophe or not, you're out of luck.

Furthermore, if you're counting on spell-check on a computer to catch such errors, you're probably out of luck because both words—girls and girl's—are spelled correctly, only for different situations.


The problems caused by this lack of a sound-cue are enhanced by the fact that the "s" inflection in English serves two distinct functions:

"s" can indicate plural, as in girls.

"s" can indicate possession, as in girl's.

Even worse, both plurals and possessives can appear at once in plural possessives: the girls' bike (in which case the bike is owned by more than one girl).

In speech, context helps us distinguish plurals from possessives, but writing needs more help, thus the apostrophe.


The absence of an auditory cue for the apostrophe seems not to matter so much in contractions—after all, people can glance at a word or word-phrase like "cant" for "can't," "wont" for "won't," "isnt" for "isn't," or "wouldve" for "would've" (even "wouldntve" for "wouldn't've") and perceive that parts are missing.


Another exception to the problem of sensing the need for an apostrophe: Most student writers find it easier to remember apostrophes for proper nouns (i.e., names) than for common nouns.


For instance, most student writers wouldn't have trouble with the following example featuring a proper noun (or name):

Incorrect: Did you remember Elaines packages?

Correct: Did you remember Elaine's packages?


But the same student writers might not notice the apostrophe issues involved in the following example featuring a common noun: 

Incorrect: Did you remember your friends packages?

Correct: Did you remember your friend's packages? (one friend) or Did you remember your friends' packages? (more than one friend)


People are used to seeing  "friends" as the plural of "friend." That familiarity keeps them from asking whether "friends" needs an apostrophe. However, people are not used to seeing proper names in plural form—Elaines?—so the lack of familiarity leads them to question the form and add an apostrophe.


Guidelines for using apostrophes

The apostrophe has three uses:

to form possessives of nouns

to show the omission of letters (contractions)

(occasionally) to indicate certain plurals 


to form possessives of nouns


Use the apostrophe to show possession. Place the apostrophe before the s to show singular possession.

one boy's hat
one woman's hat
one actress's hat
one child's hat
Ms. Chang's house


To show plural possession, make the noun plural first. Then immediately use the apostrophe.


The parents’ bedroom, the Joneses’ properties


It is not necessary to add another “s” to the end of a plural noun.


two boys' hats

two women's hats
two actresses' hats
two children's hats
the Changs' house
the Joneses' golf clubs

Proper names ending in s or an s sound should have the second s added for a possessive form. Some variations were formerly taught and may still be practiced, but the Modern Language Association has made a uniform rule of 's for all singular possessive names no matter how they are pronounced.


Mr. Jones's golf clubs
Texas's weather
Ms. Strauss's daughter
Jose Sanchez's artwork
Dr. Hastings's appointment (name is Hastings)
Mrs. Pines's books (name is Pines)



Use the apostrophe and s after the second name only if two people possess the same item.


Cesar and Maribel's home is constructed of redwood. (joint ownership of house)

Cesar's and Maribel's job contracts will be renewed next year. (separate possession of job contracts)

Cesar and Maribel's job contracts will be renewed next year. (joint ownership of more than one contract)




Never use an apostrophe with possessive pronouns: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, whose. They already show possession so they do not require an apostrophe.

Correct: This book is hers, not yours.


to show the omission of letters (contractions)


Use apostrophe for contractions. The apostrophe is always placed at the spot where the letter(s) has been removed.

don't, isn't
You're right.
She's a great teacher.

She'd've given you a ride if you'd asked her.



to indicate certain plurals 


The plurals for capital letters and numbers used as nouns are not formed with apostrophes.

She consulted with three M.D.s. (correct)
She went to three M.D.s' offices. (correct)
The apostrophe is needed here to show plural possessive. (all examples below are correct)
She learned her ABCs.
the 1990s not the 1990's
the '90s or the mid-'70s not the '90's or the mid-'70's
She learned her times tables for 6s and 7s.

Use apostrophes with capital letters and numbers when the meaning would be unclear otherwise.

Please dot your i's.
You don't mean is.
Ted couldn't distinguish between his 6's and 0's.
You need to use the apostrophe to indicate the plural of zero or it will look like the word Os. To be consistent within a sentence, you would also use the apostrophe to indicate the plural of 6's.