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Apostrophes are a punctuation mark that indicates contractions (omission of letters) or possession.


The apostrophe seems to be a mysterious mark for writers. You probably learned about it in grade school but may think of it as “that little floaty comma thing.” The apostrophe is not difficult to master. Let’s look at its uses.


  • Use the apostrophe to show omitted letters in CONTRACTIONS.

isn’t = is not
don’t = do not
won’t = will not
couldn’t = could not
he’s = he is

  •  Use the apostrophe to show POSSESSION.
    This is a little trickier because some English words don’t have “normal” plural forms.  Singular nouns are easy; just add ’s to the word.

Mary’s coat
a businessperson’s lunch
the librarian’s chair
today’s college students
the cat’s meow

  • Singular nouns can also be made possessive with the word of preceding.

the poems of Mary Oliver
the music of Raphael Saadiq
the work of a day
the novels of Amy Tan

  • It is often better to use an of phrase to show ownership when referring to inanimate objects: the top of the desk.
  • The possessives of plural nouns come in two types:

If the plural already ends in s, add ’ after the s:

three boys’ lunches
five students’ essays
English teachers’ classes
all computer operators’ skills

If the plural does not end in s, add ’s to the word:

women’s books
children’s toys
men’s phones
people’s habits

  • Do not confuse the plural with the possessive word. Remember it’s the owner or possessor, not the object being possessed, that gets the apostrophe mark.

the cat’s claws NOT the cats claw’s
the players’ uniforms NOT the players uniforms’

  • It’s is not a possessive; it’s a contraction of it and is.
  • Its is the possessive pronoun; compare to theirs and hers and his (no apostrophes).

The dog gnawed its (possessive) bone.
I want a Porsche; its (possessive) styling is superb.
However: It’s (contraction of it+is) going to be a long day.

Common Questions

Indefinite Pronouns

Some indefinite pronouns form the possessive in the same manner as singular nouns: another's, nobody's, one’s, everybody's, and so on. Some indefinite pronouns can be made possessive only in the of form: the future of each, the opinions of all, etc., never each's or all's.

Compound Possessives

In "joint ownership" compound possessives, only the final name takes the possessive form: Peron, Lugo, and Nguyen’s anthology. If the ownership is separate, BOTH NAMES take the possessive form: Dakota’s and Erin’s cameras.

Singular Nouns

If a singular noun ends with an s, it is made possessive the same way as any other singular noun.

Mr. Jones's new car
the business’s customers
the girl’s bike
the campus’s location

However, when a singular noun has more than one syllable, ends with an s, and would be difficult to pronounce with the additional s, the s after the is optional.

the scissors’ handle
Bill Withers’ songs

Whether you add the extra s or not is up to you. Just be consistent throughout your writing.

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