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

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

  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.”

  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

  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?

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