Lets vs. Let’s: The Right Way to Use Each Word

For an itty-bitty punctuation mark, apostrophes cause a lot of confusion. What's the difference between lets vs. let's?

For an itty-bitty punctuation mark, apostrophes cause a lot of confusion. It’s pretty straightforward when a word with an apostrophe is not a word without one. For instance, “wouldnt,” without an apostrophe, is not a word. But there are some words that are both words with and without an apostrophe, and that’s when the confusion kicks in. In fact, the confusion with “its” vs. “it’s” made our list of the most perplexing grammar rules in English.

Another pair of words, one with an apostrophe and one without, is “lets” vs. “let’s.” Yes, “lets” is a word without an apostrophe—but it does need one in some cases.

The difference between “lets” vs. “let’s”

“Let’s” and “lets” are fairly similar in meaning, since they’re versions of the same verb, “to let,” whose primary meaning is “to permit or allow.” But they are used in slightly different contexts and are definitely not interchangeable.

“Lets,” without the apostrophe, is a form of the verb “to let.” Specifically, it’s the third-person singular form, meaning that it goes with pronouns like “she,” “he,” and “it,” as well as nouns that take those pronouns. You’d use it in sentences like, “He lets his dog out three times a day” or “Mary lets her kids play outside after they finish their homework.”

And this applies to other meanings of the verb “let” as well, since “to allow or permit” is not its only meaning. For instance, you’d also use “lets” in sentences like, “He lets out some fishing line, hoping to catch a big fish” or “Rover lets out a noisy bark whenever he hears someone at the door.”

With the apostrophe, “let’s” means something different. As is the case with “can’t,” “it’s,” and “I’m,” the apostrophe in “let’s” makes it a contraction, with the apostrophe replacing a missing letter. “Let’s” is short for “let us,” with the apostrophe replacing the “U.” So, no, “lets” and “let’s” do not mean the same thing, just like these other words you think are synonyms but aren’t.

How to use “let’s”

While “let” usually means “to permit or allow,” the meaning almost always associated with “let’s” is slightly different. You likely know it just from context, and from phrases as simple as the two-word “Let’s go!” Usually an encouraging command, “let’s” doesn’t entail needing permission like the more general use of “let.”

For instance, even though “let’s” technically is short for “let us,” you won’t hear the contraction “let’s” in a context like, “Why won’t our parents let’s stay out later?” That just sounds silly and confusing. Even if you were imploring your parents, “Let us stay out later!” you still wouldn’t use “let’s,” because that would sound like you were suggesting you and your parents stay out later together.

And the opposite is true, too. Even though “let’s” is a shortening of “let us,” you’ll hardly ever actually hear someone say “let us” in the encouraging-command form “let’s” most often takes. For example, “Let us go to the mall today!” sounds strange and old-fashioned. You might give a command such as, “The beach awaits; let us go!” for dramatic effect, but in most cases, “let’s” is the usual choice for this use. So it’s easy to forget that “let’s” is actually short for “let us.” Now that you know the difference between “lets” vs. “let’s,” get to the bottom of some more apostrophe mistakes you’ve probably been making.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.