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Grammar Pet Peeves: 6 Ways to Use Apostrophes Correctly

Apostrophes can be tricky, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned proofreader. Common mistakes like confusing ‘it’s’ with ‘its’ or using apostrophes to pluralize have become so widespread that the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS), a society founded in 2001 for “preserving the correct use of this currently much-abused punctuation mark,” nearly closed for good due to the dispairing misuse of the tittle.

For freelancers in the writing, proofreading, or editing field, mastering the apostrophe is crucial. Fortunately, it’s not as scary as it seems. By adhering to a few simple rules, you can confidently use apostrophes correctly. For instance, avoid using them with verbs or to pluralize nouns. 

This post offers guidance and examples to help you ride the grammar wave to success. It covers all the essential rules and even highlights common mistakes to avoid. With this knowledge, you’ll soon be carving up apostrophes like a pro surfer on the perfect wave!

How to Use Apostrophes Correctly

The apostrophe (’) is a versatile punctuation mark with three main functions. Its primary use is to show possession, as in “Amy’s pen.” The mark is also used to denote the omission of one or more letters or numerals, usually in contractions like “couldn’t” and “don’t.”

Additionally, in some rare cases, the apostrophe can be used to form plurals of letters, numbers, and symbols. While this is not common usage, it’s good to be aware of it in case you come across it in your writing or reading.

Proofread Anywhere uses the Chicago Manual of Style as our go-to grammar resource. The rules for apostrophe usage can sometimes vary depending on what style guide you adhere to, but for the sake of clarity and consistency, we won’t delve further into any other grammar resources. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how exactly the apostrophe works.

Using Apostrophes to Show Possession

The image shows correct and incorrect ways to use an apostrophe when making these plural and possessive.

Do you get possessive about apostrophes? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Here are some simple rules to help you use them correctly: 

Singular nouns: Add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to show possession. Yes, even if the noun already ends in ‘s.’ So it’s “the dog’s bone,” not “the dogs’ bone,” and “Chris’s backpack,” not “Chris’ backpack.”

  • Correct: “The dog’s bone was half-eaten.”
  • Incorrect: “The dogs’ bone was half-eaten.”
  • Correct: “Chris’s backpack is blue.” 
  • Incorrect: “Chris’ backpack is blue.”

Plural nouns: If the word ends in ‘s,’ just add an apostrophe. If not, add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’

  • Correct: “Her parents’ house.”
  • Incorrect: “Her parents’s house.”
  • Correct: “The children’s books.”
  • Incorrect: “The childrens’ books.” (you’ll be surprised how many times we’ve witnessed this misuse in actual libraries!)

Joint possession: When two nouns share something, add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to the last noun. 

  • Correct: “Amy and Edward’s crockpot.”
  • Incorrect: “Amy’s and Edward’s crockpot.” 

Exceptions: There are always exceptions, right? If a singular noun that ends in ‘s’ is the same as its plural form, just use an apostrophe. And if the name of a singular entity ends in a plural ‘s,’ only add an apostrophe. And remember some expressions like ‘for goodness’ sake’ only need an apostrophe.

  • Correct: “Understanding this species’ history.”
  • Incorrect: “Understanding this species’s history.”
  • Correct: “The United States’ role in international affairs.” 
  • Incorrect: “The United States’s role in international affairs.”

Bonus tip: If adding an apostrophe makes your sentence sound clunky, try rephrasing it instead. For example, “the history of this species” instead of “this species’ history.”

Apostrophes Can Stand in for Missing Letters or Numerals

The image shows correct and incorrect usage of apostrophes

Apostrophes are often used to replace missing letters in contractions. These shortened forms of words are common in casual writing as they help convey a natural and approachable tone. For example, “don’t” (do not), “shouldn’t” (should not), and “I’ve” (I have) are all contractions.

Apostrophes can also represent the missing digits in shortened forms of years or decades, such as “‘08” for “2008.”

However, it’s important to use contractions in an appropriate way. “Wanna” is a slang contraction for “want to” that should only be used in informal settings, while “want to” is more appropriate for formal writing. Here are some common contractions:

Correct: “They’ll be going on holiday tomorrow” is correct because “they’ll” is a contraction for “they will.”

Correct: “What’s up with him?” is correct because “what’s” is a contraction for “what is.”

Correct: “Keep ‘em that way, that’ll do” is correct because “‘em” stands for “them” and “that’ll” is a contraction for “that will.”

Incorrect: “There’s lots of films on at the cinema” is incorrect because “there’s” is a contraction for “there is.” It should instead be “there are lots of…”

And when you’ve mastered contractions, try some of these quirky contractions, like “twixt” and “y’all’re.”

Forming Plural Letters, Numbers, and Symbols

Apostrophes should never be used in plurals (referring to more than one of something). So, opt for “pizzas” instead of “pizza’s” and “apples” instead of “apple’s.” 

However, there are some situations where apostrophes should be used to indicate the plurals of letters, numbers, and symbols to aid comprehension. For example, lowercase letters in the plural form should be pluralized with an apostrophe and ‘s.’ Therefore, “there are two a’s in Anna” reads much better than “there are two as in Anna.” Remember to use this rule sparingly and only when necessary to avoid unnecessary clutter in your writing.

Just imagine the following sentences without any apostrophes. They would sound like absolute gibberish!

Correct: “Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

Correct: “Mind your p’s and q’s.”

Incorrect: “The exclamation abracadabra contains five as” is incorrect because the sentence doesn’t make any sense without the apostrophe. It should read as “contains five a’s.”

Incorrect: “She holds two PhD’s” is also incorrect because PhD is capitalized and the sentence reads fine without the apostrophe being there. The correct phrasing is “she holds two PhDs.”

How NOT to Use Apostrophes 

This image shows how not to use an apostrophe

The apostrophe is an incredibly versatile punctuation mark that can serve a multitude of purposes. It can indicate possession, form contractions, and more. However, it’s important to understand that there are some specific instances where an apostrophe should never be used.

Don’t use an apostrophe:

  • To make nouns plural 
  • To make proper names plural (our ultimate pet peeve!) 
  • With possessive pronouns 
  • With verbs 
  • With noun-derived adjectives ending in ‘S’
  • In numbers and abbreviations that are plural but not possessive

You’re likely familiar with a few of these misuses. Even though apostrophes can be tricky, it’s completely normal to make mistakes. In fact, a UK study from 2012 found that even many teachers struggle with it.

But don’t worry, you don’t need to be a grammar expert to use apostrophes correctly. With a few simple rules, you’ll be able to avoid these common mistakes effortlessly. 

Here are some guidelines to follow:

Misuse #1: Don’t Use an Apostrophe +s to Make Nouns Plural

It’s important to be mindful of apostrophe misuse, particularly when it comes to making nouns plural. This is a common error that we see all around us, from grocery signs to published documents.

However, it’s important to remember that an apostrophe with ‘s’ is only used to indicate possession, and doesn’t make anything plural. To form the plural of a noun, simply add an ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end of the word, depending on its spelling. For example, if the word ends in ‘s,’ ‘x,’ ‘z,’ ‘ch,’ or ‘sh,’ add ‘es,’ and for all other words, just add ‘s.’

Incorrect: “Dog’s prefer meat’s to vegetable’s” is incorrect because nothing in the sentence indicates possession.

Correct: “Dogs prefer meats to vegetables” is correct because each word is a plural noun—you just add on an ‘s.’

Incorrect: “Get five apple’s for a dollar!”

Correct: “Get five apples for a dollar!”

Fun fact: Did you know that this particular grammar mistake is often called the grocer’s apostrophe because of how prevalent it is in grocery store signs? 

For more grammar jokes and explanations, follow us on Instagram

Misuse #2: Do Not Use an Apostrophe +s to Make a Proper Name Plural 

Another misuse proofreaders tell us about is the use of an apostrophe and ‘s’ to form the plural of a proper name. You may have received a card or two where the sender has mistakenly added an apostrophe to their last name in an attempt to pluralize it, like “from the Clarkson’s” or “Love, the Davis’ family.” 

Unfortunately, this is not the correct way to form the plural of a proper name, despite how commonly it is seen. Proper names should follow the same pluralization rule mentioned earlier, without using an apostrophe.

Incorrect: “Happy Holidays from the Martin’s” is incorrect because the sentence doesn’t indicate ownership.

Correct: “Happy Holidays from the Martins” is correct because ‘s’ makes the proper name plural.

Misuse #3: Do Not Use an Apostrophe with Possessive Pronouns

It’s important to note that possessive pronouns don’t require an apostrophe. While an apostrophe indicates possession, possessive pronouns already have that meaning built-in, so adding an apostrophe to them is unnecessary. Think of it like buying a new zipper for a jacket that already has a working one—it’s redundant and doesn’t serve any practical purpose!

Incorrect: “It was his fault not her’s and they both didn’t know the vase was your’s” is incorrect because “her” and “your” already have possessive forms.

Correct: “It was his fault, not hers and they both didn’t know the vase was yours” is correct because the sentence uses the appropriate possessive pronouns.

The confusion between “its” and “it’s” is a common apostrophe misuse that is worth paying attention to. While the two words sound the same, they have different meanings and uses. “Its” is a possessive pronoun that indicates ownership, while “it’s” is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” 

To avoid this common error, try breaking down the word into its expanded form to determine which one to use. If “it is” or “it has” makes sense in the sentence, then “it’s” is the correct choice. If not, then use “its.”

Incorrect: “The cat lifted it’s head” is incorrect because when the contraction is broken down into its uncontracted form, “the cat lifted it is head,” it doesn’t make any sense.

Correct: “The cat lifted its head.” 

Misuse #4: Do Not Use an Apostrophe with Verbs

This apostrophe misuse isn’t as prevalent as the others we’ve discussed so far, but it’s still worth knowing about, especially if you tend to overuse apostrophes. This mistake often happens when people apply the basic apostrophe rules to every word that sounds possessive and ends in an ‘s.’ 

However, remember that verbs never need apostrophes. Adding an apostrophe to a verb may result in a contraction, which could completely alter the sentence’s meaning. So, it’s important to use apostrophes only where necessary and avoid overusing the rules.

Incorrect: “She always find’s time to walk 20 minutes a day and she spend’s a good portion of it going at a fast pace” is incorrect because “find” and “spend” are both verbs. 

Correct: “She always finds time to walk 20 minutes a day and she spends a good portion of it going at a fast pace.”

Misuse #5: Do Not Use an Apostrophe with Noun-Derived Adjectives Ending in ‘S’

This particular apostrophe misuse is pretty rare, but as a freelance proofreader or editor, it’s important to be aware of it since you may encounter it from time to time. Remember, not all words ending in ‘s’ need apostrophes. So, always double-check before adding one, even if it sounds possessive. 

Incorrect: “The Christmas’ music was the perfect start to the festivities” is incorrect because the sentence makes complete sense without the apostrophe being there. Nothing has possession.

Correct: “The Christmas music was the perfect start to the festivities.”

Misuse #6: Don’t Use an Apostrophe in Numbers and Abbreviations that are Plural but not Possessive

Misusing apostrophes in numbers and abbreviations that are plural but not possessive can result in awkward sentences. So, removing the apostrophe entirely can often improve the readability of the text. This misuse is particularly common when attempting to write plural years. 

Incorrect: “I was born in the 1990’s and my sister was born back in the 1980’s” is incorrect because the sentence reads completely fine without the apostrophes. 

Correct: “I was born in the 1990s and my sister was born back in the 1980s.”

Our Take

The apostrophe might be a tiny punctuation mark, but its purpose is nothing less than mighty. When used properly, it ensures your sentences are easy to understand and truly convey your intended message. 

It’s particularly vital to master common grammar rules if you’re a student or working professional since your writing will be judged by colleagues, teachers, or employers. A polished piece of work will be perceived as a heck of a lot better than something with misplaced apostrophes or misused words and homophones

To brush up on your grammar skills, check out the Look Better in Writing Handbook. You can also take part in the Grammar Lion: English Grammar Course, which offers a refresher on the biggest grammar rules as well as some more advanced grammar tips. And if you’re struggling, don’t worry—there’s support out there, such as the Write your way to freedom course, which can help you stay positive and motivated throughout your writing journey.

Your Turn

Have you made any of these common apostrophe errors? Don’t feel ashamed—even the most seasoned writers can fall victim to these mistakes. Share your experiences in the comments below, and feel free to vent about your grammar pet peeves. 

Are you a grammar nerd looking for a way to earn money without leaving the house? Check out our FREE video workshop to see if proofreading is right for you! You can also have a quick browse of our dedicated how to become a proofreader and an intro to proofreading marks that you can browse through. 

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  1. Pet peeve:
    Misusing between and among. Just heard it misused on TV last evening.

  2. Here’s a new one for me.
    “De-thaw”. As in, “I need to de-thaw some hamburger for supper.”
    I couldn’t even comment. I stood, mouth open, blinking for 30 seconds, wondering if he was serious or just enjoying my pain….

  3. Try and (instead of try to) should be the number one pet peeve. It’s horrible and it’s used regularly. I believe I hear/read it everyday in the news, both in newspapers as well as televised news.
    I wish teachers would learn this one and teach it to their students.

    Irregardless is another one. Funny!

  4. I wonder if I'm the only person who is infuriated by the use of the letter 'o' instead of the word zero, when a telephone number is being recited.

  5. How about "ideal" when it should be "idea"?
    I still don't like supposably.
    I've also heard a co-worker say she unthawed food.

    1. Oh, WOW, Terri… unthawed. That’s a new one. Ideal/idea are a tricky pair, indeed, and I agree with you on “supposably” !!

  6. When someone says, “what was your name,” it drives me nuts. If you didn’t hear it the first time the person gave their name, you should say “what did you say your name is?” Why would you ask for someone’s maiden or prior name? That’s what you’re doing when you say, “was.”

    Also drives me batty when newscasters say, “duh-tail” instead of “dee-tail.” The word is DETAIL, yet people insist on saying DUH.

    How about when someone says “VE-TRIN” instead of “VET-ER-AN?” The word has three syllables, not two, and there’s no “I” in the word.

  7. My insides curdle when I hear something like, 'I think I'll get these ones'. It's a virtual tie with, "Where did you get those at?'

  8. Two that bother me are: 1. "Shop our store", rather than "Shop in ( or "at") our store", and 2. "to where you can" rather than " so that you can".

  9. BTW, there are some errors in this blog article. For example, when referring to a letter such as "s," double quotation marks should be used. This article used single quotation marks several times in this situation (but not every time!). Single quotation marks are only used within double quotation marks. I checked this in both the Chicago Manual of Style and The Best Punctuation Book Period.

  10. I hope it's ok to point out that in the fourth paragraph, second sentence there appears to be a typo. "marks" is plural where I believe it should be singular.

    "The mark is also used…" or "The marks are also used…"

    I am just delving into the wonderful world of proofreading so I hope that this is correct!

    1. Thank you for the alert1 I have corrected the error and appreciate your polite and considerate notification! 😊

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