Online College Courses for Credit



Author: Linda Neuman

To introduce apostrophes, why they are used, and common errors with them.

To explain the difference between its and it's.

To explain the difference between your and you're.

To explain how to make plural names possessive.

To explain how to make a name or word ending in "s" possessive.

This packet will help a learner seeking to understand how to use correct punctuation and who is confused about how to use apostrophes.  It will explain standard rules for apostrophes and common errors.

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Introduction: Why are apostrophes important?

Apostrophes can simplify your writing.

Depending on where you place it, an apostrophe can denote a contraction or a possessive.  It is meant to simplify the language, to write in a way English is normally spoken.

The apostrophe in a possessive is often followed by an “s,” leading to a lot of misuse of the punctuation.  Since pluralizing a word also often involves adding an “s,” one might be tempted to place an apostrophe behind it.  In most cases, however, pluralizing does not require an apostrophe.  Adding one where one is not needed does not serve to simplify the language, so don’t use an apostrophe unless you know it is needed.

Replacing letters in a contraction

Apostrophes are used when making a contraction by replacing the letters that have been removed.  If you push together the words “did not” to form the contraction “didn’t,” you remove the “o” and replace it with an apostrophe.  This is true for all contractions where one or two letters are removed  from the second word.  Where the letters used to be, there should now be an apostrophe.

Replacing a possessive phrase

Apostrophes are also used to shorten a bulky phrase that shows possession.  It is not natural to say or write “I put the book belonging to Tom on the table.” It is much easier and more natural to say “I put Tom’s book on the table.”  This is called a singular possessive, because there is only one owner: Tom.  Just add an apostrophe and an “s” to show that Tom owns something: a book. 

Plural possessives—where there is more than one owner—also require an apostrophe, but not always an “s.”  There are some general rules to help you differentiate when the “s” is needed, so plural possessives will be covered in a separate section of this packet.

A  word about pronoun possessives…

Pronouns that show possession do NOT need an apostrophe.  Ever.  You might need to add an “s,” but you will never need to add an apostrophe.  Examples: hers, theirs, its, yours, ours.


The only exception to the rule about plurals

Plurals do not require apostrophes, except in only one instance: if you need to pluralize a single lowercase letter of the alphabet.  If you wanted to instruct someone to “make sure all your i’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed” (an expression meaning to be thorough and exacting), you need to add an apostrophe before the “s” to pluralize the “i” and the “t” in this case.  If you don’t use an apostrophe here, you will end up with the word “is” where you definitely did not intend for it to be.



It’s and Its: When do I add an apostrophe?

It’s a shame this example needs its own section

Perhaps the most common abuse of the apostrophe is the persistence of incorrect usage for the word “it.”

Simply put, if you didn’t mean to say “it is,” you didn’t need an apostrophe.

Absolutely the only time to use an apostrophe here is when you are making the contraction “it’s” from the words “it is.”

Notice the use of the apostrophe in the title of this section.  “It’s a shame” is a more natural way of saying “It is a shame,” so the contraction “it’s” is formed from the words “it is.”  All contractions require apostrophes to take the place of the letters that are removed.

Pronoun possessives, on the other hand, do NOT require an apostrophe under any circumstances, and the word “it” is a pronoun.  In the title of this section you will note the words “this example needs its own section.” Here, the pronoun “it” refers to the “example” which in this case is the example of how to use or not use an apostrophe with this word.  Essentially, the word “it” owns this section of the packet.  To denote ownership, or possession, only an “s” is needed here.

Examples of correct use of “it’s”

It’s (it is) time to go shopping.

Can you believe it’s (it is) summer already?

I want to go to sleep, but it’s (it is) more important to finish studying.

Examples of correct use of “its” (NO apostrophe)

The zombie searched for its next victim.

She threw down her purse, spilling its contents onto the floor.

The male Emperor penguin faithfully guards its egg.

When in doubt…

Simply read or say the sentence in question using the words “it is” instead of “its.”  If the sentence suddenly makes no sense, that means you don’t need an apostrophe.




Source: Linda Neuman

You're and Your: what's the difference?

Your expression tells me you’re hoping I will explain further.

Try saying that sentence replacing both of the big bold words with “you are.” This is what you get:

You are expression tells me you are hoping I will explain further.

Which of those doesn’t sound right?

Only one of them will sound right, because only one of them actually means the same thing as “you are.”  That’s the one that shortens to “you’re” when you take away the “a” and replace it with an apostrophe to make a contraction. 

The other word, “your,” is a pronoun possessive.  The title of this section assumes you have a certain facial expression—most likely a quizzical one, if you indeed wish for more explanation on this topic.  So the quizzical expression belongs to you; it is your expression. 

Examples of correct use of "your":

You will need your umbrella today.

I found your schoolbag in my car.

Your dedication to this project is impressive.

Examples of correct use of "you’re":

Is it true you’re (you are) going to Europe?

You’re (you are) an exceptional student.

I know you’re (you are) upset about what happened.

At this point…

Your knowledge about apostrophes is increasing and you’re feeling more confident.


Source: Linda Neuman

Forming possessives with names that end in "s"

What about Jules and Cyrus?

Both these names end in the letter “s.”  Yet each may follow a different rule when forming a possessive.  Why?  Because the sound that “s” makes is not the same for each name.

The name “Jules” has a “z” sound.  It may be difficult to say that sound followed by a hard “s” sound.  So in the case of Jules, traditional rules dictate that only the apostrophe should be added to form a possessive.  

Examples of correct usage:

I needed to borrow Miles’ bike to get to the store.

Did you know Mary Jones’ dogs both won blue ribbons?

The Waters’ residence is up for sale.  OR

The Waterses’ residence is up for sale.

(In the case of surnames ending in “s,” if you mean to refer to everyone in the Waters family who lives in the house for sale, it is becoming common practice to first pluralize “Waters” to “the Waterses” and then add an apostrophe.)

The name “Cyrus” has a hard “s” sound.  It is easier to say two hard “s” sounds together, so it is appropriate to add both an apostrophe and an extra “s” to this name to form a possessive.

Examples of correct usage:

Jack Harris’s farm is hiring more workers.

I didn’t want Travis’s little brother to hear us.

Jonas’s papers on fruit fly migration were outstanding.

Just to confuse you further…

 You will sometimes see and hear the extra “s” on both types of names, and sometimes see it left off of both types of names.   The rules on possessives ending in “s” are not uniformly agreed upon by grammar experts, so as long as you add an apostrophe after the name you will be using an acceptable form of the possessive.  Whether you decide to add an “s” or not, the important thing is to be consistent.  Choose one and stick with it. 

So if you see “Thomas’ lunch” or “Mr. Giles’s new car,” the former represents a more traditional way of punctuating while the latter is a more modern style.



Plural Possessives: where to put the apostrophe, when to add "s"

Plural Possessives

If you want to say that more than one thing or person owns or possesses something, that is called a plural possessive and requires an apostrophe.  It does not, however, always require an “s.”

When to add an “s” after the apostrophe

If the plural form does not end in the letter “s,” you should add one.  Irregular plurals such as women and children need an apostrophe and an “s” to form a possessive.   

Examples of correct usage:

I usually read about women’s issues in that magazine.

The children’s pet hamster needed to be fed.

When NOT to add an “s” after the apostrophe

If the plural form already ends in “s,” as most do, add only an apostrophe to form a possessive.  The norm for pluralizing a noun is to add an “s” such as in apples, trains, boys, etc.

Examples of correct usage:

He joined the boys’ soccer team at summer camp.

Most trains’ sleeper berths are small but comfortable.

Rule of thumb for plural possessives

If your pluralized noun ends in “s,” it doesn’t need another one.  Just add the apostrophe. 

Source: Linda Neuman

Conclusion: Easy rules to remember


The main rules to remember when punctuating with apostrophes are as follows:

  •  (For contractions) Put the apostrophe

                                                 where the letters used to be


  •  (For possessives) Never put an apostrophe

                              on a pronoun possessive


  • Don’t overuse apostrophes.  Remember, they are for contractions and possessives only.  To simply pluralize a noun, 99.99% of the time you will NOT need an apostrophe.

For a condensed form of this written presentation, as well as some additional uses for the apostrophe, see the Power Point.

Source: Linda Neuman

The Apostrophe and How to Use It (or NOT use it!)

See the many different ways apostrophes are used, learn proper placement of apostrophes, and pay special attention to the slide that tells you where they don't belong!

Source: Linda Neuman

Just for fun

If you want to see all the humorous ways the apostrophe has been abused in public print, watch this YouTube video:

The video also includes information on the proper use of this much-misused punctuator.