When to Use an Apostrophe—And When You Shouldn’t

An apostrophe is not an accessory.

grammar rules apostropheEmma Kapotes

Little tweaks—like a comma, question mark, or an apostrophe—can make or break the flow or meaning of a sentence. For grammar and punctuation nerds, a poorly placed apostrophe especially brings chills. Avoid this common punctuation mistake that makes smart people look dumb and remember these apostrophe rules.

What is an apostrophe?

Apostrophes are the curly floating commas in sentences that usually indicate possession or a contraction. There are a few set phrases and holidays, however, that also use apostrophes. In fact, apostrophes have some of the most confusing grammar rules in the English language.

When to use an apostrophe

Use apostrophes when combining words

Contractions, or shortened groups of words, use the apostrophe to replace the missing letter. For example, if you want to connect “do not,” you can use an apostrophe to replace the “o” making the new word “don’t.” Other common words that are often combined include not, are, would, had, and will. These omissions make words and sentences easier to read and write, too. Things get confusing if misuse apostrophes, but it’s OK to safely ignore these strict grammar rules.

Use apostrophes to show ownership or possession

You don’t just randomly decide when to use an apostrophe. For most singular nouns, you add an apostrophe and “s” to make it possessive or to show ownership. For example, “The cat’s litter box.” Most plural nouns only need an apostrophe, such as, “The dogs’ leashes.” Plural nouns not ending in “s” need both an apostrophe and “s.” Plus, if something isn’t usually plural, you also add an apostrophe and “s.” For example, “Make sure to dot your T’s and cross your I’s.”

Use apostrophes for certain holidays and some dates

Apostrophe rules get confusing when it comes to holidays since some have an apostrophe while others don’t. For example, Americans celebrate Mother’s Day, April Fools’ Day, and Veterans Day—all with different apostrophe uses. Make sure to look up the proper spelling of the particular holiday name before jotting it down. Incorrectly spelling a holiday, especially on a card, might lead to some of these other spelling and grammar debates that no one can agree on.

When to use an apostrophe for dates depends on how you want to write the date. Don’t add an apostrophe “s” to the end of the whole number. Instead, for abbreviated dates, put the apostrophe in the front. So both, “Big hair was popular in the 1980s,” and, “Big hair was popular in the ’80s” are correct.

When not to use an apostrophe

Don’t use apostrophes to make a word plural, unless there’s possession

Adding an “s” or “es” make words plural without the help of an apostrophe. If the subject of the sentence is already plural, however, add the apostrophe after the “s.” Like the earlier example, “The dogs’ leashes.” Adding unnecessary apostrophes is one of the 10 ways you’re breaking apostrophe rules and using them wrong.

Some words require an entire spelling change instead of an apostrophe

On the other hand, personal pronouns do not use apostrophes to form possessives. Instead, these pronouns have different spellings. So “they” become “their” to show possession. Another example is “it.” If you want to indicate possession, use “its.” Never use “its,'” and only use “it’s” if you’re going to use a contraction for “it is.”

As for numbers that aren’t years, you shouldn’t add an apostrophe plus “s” to the end. So if you’re talking about age, the man is in his 30s—not his 30’s. Using apostrophes correctly is one easy way to boost your writing. Now that you know when to use an apostrophe, make your high school English teachers proud by also remembering these 41 little grammar rules that will make you sound smarter.

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Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest who previously wrote for INSIDER, the Food Network, POPSUGAR, Well + Good, Westchester Magazine, and more. There's also a 90 percent chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she's not writing away about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.