apostrophes

Apostrophes: One Mark, Three Ways

By Jennifer Rappaport

Apostrophes can be used in three ways: to form contractions, to create plurals, and to show possession.* Read up on the details below and then take our quiz!

Contractions

Apostrophes are used to form contractions—that is, words that are shortened by omitting one or more letters—for example, you’re for you are, ma’am for madam, tellin’ for telling, and ’til for until.

When the apostrophe is at the start of the word—as in ’til—be sure that the punctuation mark is inserted correctly. It should look like a single closing quotation mark, not an opening one.

Plurals

Apostrophes are used to form the plurals of letters:

Accommodation has two c’s and two m’s.
Mind your p’s and q’s.
She had three scarlet A’s on her back.

But apostrophes are not used for the plurals of letters referring to grades or for the plurals of abbreviations containing capital letters:

She got three As.

This program is open to people with MAs and PhDs.

Possessives

Apostrophes are used to show possession. For singular nouns and irregular plurals (those not ending in s), you should add ’s to the end of the word. For plural nouns ending in s, you should add only an apostrophe:

the cat’s meow
the people’s choice
an old wives’ tale

Note, though, that when a word ending in s is the same in the plural as it is in the singular, you just add an apostrophe:

scissors’ blades
identity politics’ critics

Also add only an apostrophe for proper names when the name is plural but the entity is singular:

the United States’ policy on China

In MLA style, proper nouns ending in s that are singular follow the general rule and add ’s :

Athens’s history
Diogenes’s philosophy
Alexandre Dumas’s novels

Some styles may allow you to add only an apostrophe: Athens’ history, Diogenes’ philosophy, Dumas’ novels.

If two nouns jointly possess something, use only one apostrophe:

My mom and dad’s house

But if each noun possesses something separately, use an apostrophe with each noun:

Smith’s and Johnson’s studies

Remember to use an apostrophe in phrases such as the following:

one week’s vacation (one week of vacation)

And use an apostrophe for the double possessive:

He is a friend of Steve’s (Steve’s is the equivalent of the possessive pronoun his: a friend of his.)

Though practices vary, you may omit the apostrophe when a noun modifies another noun—that is, when the first noun is attributive:

a teachers union (a union for teachers)

*These rules are adapted from the MLA Handbook, 7th edition.

Published 20 September 2017

45 comments on “Apostrophes: One Mark, Three Ways”

    • Perhaps you mean single quotation marks? Single quotation marks, not apostrophes, are used for quotations within quotations.

  1. “Apostrophes are used to form the plurals of lowercase letters.” Can they also be used for capital letters and numbers? Anything else? 😉

    • Thanks for your question. The possessive of “Camus” is formed the same way it is for “Dumas,” shown above, so you would write “Albert Camus’s novel,” even though the second “s” is not pronounced. Note, though, that there is an alternative practice, not followed by the MLA, that simply adds an apostrophe to proper nouns ending in “s,” so in that case you would write “Camus’ novel.”

      • Actually, it is the first “s” in “Albert Camus’s novel” which is not pronounced. Or are you saying that neither one is?

        • Thanks for your comment. I’m saying only one s is pronounced. If you write “Camus’ novel,” you pronounce the s. If you write “Camus’s novel,” you pronounce only one s.

  2. Jennifer,
    I would like to ask for clarification about apostrophes used to form plurals of numbers. I understand that an apostrophe is not needed when an “s” follows a number (1900s). Is that correct?
    Thanks

    • Great question. In MLA style, an apostrophe is not used to form the plural of numbers, so it is correct to write “1900s.”

  3. I have a question about surnames that are both plural and posessive. If we are discussing something owned by a couple, would we say the Joneses’ garage in MLA? Thanks!

  4. Where would I put the possessive apostrophe in the case of a work’s title that ends in “s”? For example, Wuthering Heights (“Wuthering Heights’s narrative arc” or “Wuthering Heights’ narrative arc”?)
    Thanks

    • Excellent question. A title is treated as a singular entity, so adding an ‘s after the title is technically correct, but appending an ‘s to any title is awkward. It is usually best to rearrange the sentence: The narrative arc of Wuthering Heights. . . .

  5. How about the possessive of a proper noun that is already a possessive, e.g., the store Kohl’s? If I want to refer to something as belonging to Kohl’s, how do I write it?

    • Great question! I would follow Bryan Garner (in Garner’s Modern American Usage, Oxford UP, 2009, p. 46), who recommends leaving the term as is (Kohl’s newest location) or rewording (the newest location of Kohl’s).

    • If the last name is Brode, then the plural is Brodes, and the plural possessive is Brodes’.

      If the last name is Brodes, then the plural is Brodeses, and the plural possessive is Brodeses’.

  6. Hello,
    When referring to decades such as the seventies, eighties or nineties, and when abbreviating, what is the correct way to write these? Would it be 1970s, 70s, and/or ’70s?
    Many thanks

  7. You owe what would be a terrific place for information like the information presented in this post? The handbook. I may be overlooking it — it wouldn’t the first time that I can’t find something right in front of my face — but I can’t find that guidance in the handbook itself.

  8. What do you recommend for a last name that ends in “s” that would also be possessive? For example, would you write “Adams’ Family Adventures” or “Adamses’ Family Adventures” or “Adams’s Family Adventures”? Thanks!

  9. When TYPING a possessive word, should there be a space after the word, thus before the ‘s?

    Example:
    Mark’s
    OR
    Mark ‘s

    When WRITING a possessive word in cursive print, should there be a space after the word thus before the ‘s?

  10. I thought that if a name was one syllable, you use the apostrophe as follow: Ross’s or if two syllables, Alexis’ or the The Thomas’. Is this incorrect?

    • Thanks for your question.

      The rule does not relate to syllables. It is Ross’s (singular possessive), Alexis’s (singular possessive), and the Thomases’ (plural posssessive).

  11. How do I make something in quotes possessive? For example:
    “Mending Wall”‘s meter is iambic pentameter.
    Is this correct — close quote followed by ‘s?

    • Great question. Technically, it’s correct, but it’s better to revise to avoid the awkwardness of an apostrophe after a closing quotation mark:

      The meter of “Mending Wall” is iambic pentameter.

  12. Which one is correct?
    Bring your whole family out of the Wayne Thomas’s Family Skate Night on . .

    Bring your whole family out to the Wayne Thomas’ Family Skate Night on . . .

    Bring your whole family out to the Wayne Thomases Family Skate Night on . . .

    • As noted above, in MLA style, proper nouns ending in s that are singular follow the general rule and add ’s, so we would write

      Wayne Thomas’s Family Skate Night

  13. I read someplace a few years back that the plural of an acronym will have ‘s after the letters. For example would plural of an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) be IRA’s? The plural of Key Performance Indicator (KPI) plural be KPI’s. As opposed to an acronym that would just have the s at the end?

  14. So, would this be an acceptable usage? I want to refer to the owner of a major league baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The proposed usage would be: The Pirates owner was discussing the lack of attendance at recent games.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks for your question, David. Pirates is plural, so the possessive is formed by adding an s: the Pirates’ owner.

      • Thanks.

        Is there any case for permitting usage without the apostrophe? Example:

        The Cubs player was promoted from AAA to the major league team last week.

  15. How would you use an apostrophe in this case?

    The health care organization is called Catholic Health Initiatives. They have an online job board. So that proper noun possesses that.

    I want to say “….Catholic Health Initiatives online job board.”

    • See my comment above about attributive nouns. You could write either

      Catholic Health Initiatives online job board

      or
      Catholic Health Initiatives’ online job board

    • Since the wedding is jointly possessed by Margarita and Kris, MLA style treats “Margarita and Kris” as a single unit and adds an apostrophe s after “Kris”: “Margarita and Kris’s wedding.” In an older convention, described in the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (sec. 7.23), the possessive of singular nouns ending in s is formed by adding an apostrophe only, so if you follow that convention, “Margarita and Kris’ wedding” would be acceptable.

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