How to use apostrophes

In this article I will show you how to use apostrophes to indicate missing letters and possession, and how they are used with years, time, Māori words, and abbreviations. I will also explain the difference between its and it’s.

Apostrophes show when letters are missing

Apostrophes indicate missing letters, also known as contractions.

  • don’t → do not
  • mustn’t → must not
  • shouldn’t’ve → should not have
  • y’all → you all
  • it’s → it is
  • ’90s → 1990s
  • ’em → them

Contractions are great in fiction and memoir, especially in dialogue. Dialogue should reflect the way a character speaks, and most people don’t speak using full words. If a character is speaking in full words or uses lots of contractions, that tells the reader something about their character and voice.

In academic writing, contractions are rarely used because of their informal tone. If you’re writing your thesis, then spell out words in full.

Apostrophes show possession

Possession shows what something belongs to.

  • The child’s chair. → The chair belongs to the child.
  • The children’s toys. → The toys belong to the children.
  • Michael’s thoughts were all over the place.
  • Have you looked it up in the book’s index?
  • The dogs’ barking is driving me mad. → More than one dog is barking.
  • The dog’s barking is driving me mad. → One dog is barking.
  • Bob and Linda’s shop. Or, Bob’s and Linda’s shop.

When does Bob get an apostrophe? It depends on whether Bob and Linda share the thing they possess. If Bob and Linda own the shop together, then it’s Bob and Linda’s shop. If Bob and Linda own separate shops, then it’s Bob’s and Linda’s shops. Note the s at the end of shops, too.

  • James’ chair. Or, James’s chair.
  • Have you visited any of Hastings’ bakeries? Or, have you visited any of Hastings’s bakeries?

These are both correct. Whether you insert an s after the apostrophe is a matter of style, rather than a grammar rule. Whichever you choose, be consistent so you don’t confuse your readers. And if you’re following a style guide, see what they prefer. Here’s guidance from MLA and guidance from CMOS.

An argument in favour of ’s: including the ’s in these contexts will make your writing clearer for people who use screen readers. Some screen readers will pronounce James’ as James, but will pronounce James’s with the extra s.

How to use apostrophes with it’s

Its is a possessive pronoun (like his, hers, theirs, yours) and doesn’t need an apostrophe. It’s is a contraction of it is or it has, so it needs an apostrophe.

Contraction:

  • It’s a lovely day. Or, it is a lovely day.
  • I wonder if it’s going to rain. Or, I wonder if it is going to rain.

Possession:

  • The dog wags its tail.
  • The tree drops its leaves

If you’re not sure whether you should use it’s or its, try reading the sentence out loud and spell out the contraction. Does it is a lovely day sound correct? Yes! Does the dog is wagging it is tail sound correct? No!

Alternatively, read the sentence out loud and replace its with another possessive pronoun. Does I wonder if his going to rain sound correct? No! Does the dog is wagging his tail sound correct? Yes!

How to use apostrophes with years

90’s.
1990’s.
✅ ’90s.
✅ 1990s
✅ mid-’90s
✅ The ’90s’ best band was the Spice Girls. (’90s’ here is possessive.)
✅ The Spice Girls were the best band of the ’90s.

Some style guides are doing away with the apostrophe in front of shortened decades such as ’90s. You can include the apostrophe or not, just make sure you’re consistent.

On your keyboard, the apostrophe is the same key as the single opening quote mark. At the start of a word, your word processor will likely use an opening quote mark instead of an apostrophe, so be sure to double check which way around the tail is facing.

How to use apostrophes with time

Without getting too bogged down in grammatical lingo, possessives can also be used in ‘of’ phrases, usually with time.

  • I have given him two weeks’ notice.

This means, I have given him two weeks of notice. Some styles are moving toward leaving out the apostrophe, but its inclusion removes ambiguity so using it can add clarity.

  • I have given him one day’s notice.

I have given him one day of notice.

  • The parcel will arrive in three days’ time.

The parcel will arrive in three days of time. Or simply, the parcel will arrive in three days.

How to use apostrophes with Māori words

These guidelines and examples come from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission.

When using te reo Māori in English texts, avoid using ’s with Māori words, including when they are used to indicate possession by places, tribes, or people. Instead, try to reword the sentence.

  • Kaikōura’s mayor → the mayor of Kaikōura.
  • Ruapehu’s most recent eruption → the most recent eruption of Ruapehu

How to show possession when citing sources

Here’s what APA recommends:

✅ Smith’s (2005) results show…
✅ Smith and Ihimaera’s (2005) results show…
✅ Smith et al.’s (2005) results show…

How to use apostrophes with abbreviations

You only need to use an apostrophe with an abbreviation if you are showing possession:

✅ My CD’s case is broken
✅ The UN’s report on disaster relief
✅ The SIS’s dossier.

You don’t need to use an apostrophe with plurals:

✅ I have three CDs.
I have three CD’s.
✅ I got four As and a B in my exams.
I got four A’s and a B in my exams. (But do check your style guide. MLA uses an apostrophe in this case.)

How to use apostrophes in unusual phrases

For clarity in unusual phrases:

✅ Mind your p’s and q’s

Finally…

Apostrophes don’t have to be a source of stress. Think about whether you’re shortening a word or showing possession. If you are, then use an apostrophe. If you’re adding an s to make a plural, then you don’t need an apostrophe.

And if you get really stuck, feel free to contact me and I can help knock your document into shape.

References

3 Rules to help you with Compound Possession, by Mignon Fogarty. Quick and Dirty Tips, 14 October 2019. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/compound-possession

Apostrophes: One Mark, Three ways, by Jennifer Rappaport. MLA Style Centre, 20 September 2017. https://style.mla.org/apostrophes-three-ways/

Fit to Print: The Writing & Editing Style Guide for Aotearoa New Zealand, by Janet Hughes and Derek Wallace. Dunmore Publishing, 2010

Forming Possessives with Singular Names, by Tyler Krupa. APA Style Blog, 20 June 2013. https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2013/06/forming-possessives-with-singular-names.html

Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography. Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, 2012. https://www.reomaori.co.nz/orthography

Perfect Grammar: A Guide to English Grammar & Punctuation. Penguin Books, 2005

Section 7.16 in the Spotlight. CMOS Shop Talk, 12 May 2015.
https://cmosshoptalk.com/2015/05/12/section-7-16-in-the-spotlight/