The Use of the Apostrophe
in the English Language

by The Punctuator and Apostrophe Squid

Note to the Reader

This document presents a set of simplified rules by which a writer can avoid the overwhelming majority of blunders in using the apostrophe which betray slapdash scribblers. It is not intended as a complete guide to English usage of possessives, plurals, and contractions; there are (rare) exceptions to these rules, although many are judgement calls about which different style guides differ in their recommendations.

International Write Like a Moron Day

Every year there seem to be more and more national and international days, months, and years celebrating ever more inane events. For example, the morally bankrupt laugh riot United Nations have designated March 24 as “World Tuberculosis Day” (don't forget to spit on the sidewalk!), April 23 “World Book and Copyright Day” (fire up your scanner!), and November 21 “World Television Day”, recognising the contribution that medium has made to the diffusion of high culture and intellectual achievement around the world. And don't forget, 2008, the year this document was published, is the International Year of the Potato—and so November 21st, 2008 must therefore be the doubly UN designated day of the Couch Potato!

But it isn't just the United Nations that declares absurd special days. Let's not forget February 12, Darwin Day, where every idiot inclined to do some stupid stunt does the best to elide themselves from the gene pool, and World Rabies Day—hold out your hand to the foam-flecked hound! Heck, September 19th has even been designated International Talk Like a Pirate Day, with its own custom keyboard. So in this spirit, that anything at all, however absurd, trivial, or ignominious, merits commemoration, I propose we proclaim an International Write Like a Moron Day to celebrate the elbow-typing idiots who clutter our electronic mail in-boxes, Web log comments, and anywhere else on the Internet that stochastic pecking at keys is exposed to a global audience.

Slapdash But what day shall we choose? I'd suggest January 1st, in commemoration of the first archived Slashdot post on January 1st, 1998. In the decade since, Slashdot has provided a bottomless well of bad writing, couldn't-care-less editing, and profound ignorance of virtually every aspect of the real world. It has set the standard for moronic prose, and deserves being remembered as we try to meet and exceed the abysmal benchmark it has made. Choosing New Year's Day has the additional advantage that people unaware of the occasion who read your contributions to the festivities will simply assume you rang in the new year a tad too exuberantly and had difficulties focusing on the screen and hitting the correct keys. I say “first archived post” because, in keeping with the attention to detail which characterises Slashdot and those who participate there, all posts made between the September 1997 launch of the site and the start of 1998 have been lost.

Now, while silly spelling, garbled grammar, and peculiar punctuation are hallmarks of slapdash writing, nothing so instantly fingers scribblings of intellectual knuckle-walkers as riotously funny misuse of the apostrophe. This humble punctuation mark has been the downfall not only of innumerable easily excused greengrocers and folks who chalk specials at the diner, but also self-possessed self-published authors and pompous pundits. If you want people to take your views on complex issues seriously, you'd better pay attention to the simple stuff. If you don't know the difference between “its” and “it's”, then why should anybody take seriously what you think about something that's thousands of times more complicated?

In that spirit, reclusive grammatical superhero The Punctuator and his sidekick Apostrophe Squid (squirting indelible ink on nugatory apostrophes!) present five simple rules for using the apostrophe, all of which you should take pains to violate when celebrating International Write Like a Moron Day.

“It's” and “Its”

Marching morons Nothing screams moron more than taking to the streets of a civil society which cherishes free speech, tolerance, and cultural diversity to cheer on terrorists who would impose their medieval ignorance and savagery upon those who pay the dole which supports them. About the only way to plumb an even lower intellectual stratum is to screw up one of the simplest things in English—the distinction between “it's” and “its”—on the signs you brandish before the cameras of the legacy media.

Confusing “its” and “it's” is the signature of moronic writing precisely because it's so simple to get right; anybody who doesn't is either too stupid to learn one of the simplest rules in English writing, or such a slacker they can't be bothered to express their meaning to the audience they address. “Its” is a possessive pronoun: the possessive form of “it” and, as we'll see below, possessive pronouns never use an apostrophe. “It's” is a contraction of the phrase “it is” (or sometimes “it has”), and contractions always use an apostrophe to indicate the letters omitted when running the two words together.

Rule 1. If you mean “it is”, or “it has”, write “it's”. Otherwise, write “its”.


  1. Aim the rifle and pull its trigger. (Possessive: the trigger belongs to the rifle.)
  2. When it's time, flip the burgers. (Contraction: “When it is time…”)


Were open A contraction runs words together to save space on the printed page, keystrokes or type, time in spoken speech, or in the interest of informality. Note that you never need to use a contraction, so if you're unsure how to form one, you can always write it out, although if you always do so you may end up sounding like an android in mediocre science fiction, where artificial life forms with superhuman intellect and strength never seem to be able to wrap their goobertronic brains around the word “isn't”.

Let's (let us) use that word, “isn't” (is not) as an example, shall we? Rather than writing “is not”, we can run the two words together, but simply concatenating them would yield “isnot”, which sounds like something gross which accumulates in your tear ducts, so we drop the “o” and replace it with an apostrophe which stands for the letter(s) dropped when running them together: “isn't”. There are many contractions permissible in informal English, but every one obeys this convention. (I do not consider words such as “cannot” contractions; they have become words in their own right, and are formed without dropping letters.) Here are some examples of contractions:

Contraction     Phrase
it's it is / it has
we're we are
we'll we will
she'd she had / she would
he'll he will
we'd we had / we would
can't can not

Note that every one of the contractions above means something entirely different if the apostrophe is omitted. The apostrophe is not a nicety of formal writing; it is essential to making your meaning clear. In very formal writing, you probably shouldn't use contractions at all.

Rule 2. Contractions (can't, I'll, you're) always use an apostrophe, replacing the omitted letters.


  1. Don't (do not) try to use contractions everywhere. It's (it is) a way to lighten up your prose, but it'll (it will) seem forced if they're (they are) sprinkled in every few words.
  2. I've (I have) been trying to explain this for decades, but I mustn't (must not) abandon hope, although it'd (it would) be difficult to guess if there'll (there will) be a day the message gets across.


We beat all competitors tire prices The rules for forming possessives in English are many and complicated, in part because English has assimilated the vocabulary and grammar of a multitude of other languages and incorporated them, only partially digested, into its own. Here, however, we've narrowed our focus on the use of the apostrophe, and within that limited scope, avoiding the pitfalls which make your writing look moronic is almost as easy as knowing the difference between a noun and a pronoun. (You do know the difference, don't you? Sigh—kids today…a noun is a word for a thing, physical or abstract: “cat”, “energy”, “compassion”, “ontology”, “Albania”; a pronoun is a word which stands for a noun, usually one mentioned earlier: “it”, “she”, “them”, “we”.)

You, in the back of the class—“What's a possessive?” Glad you asked…there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. A possessive is the form of a word which indicates that something else belongs to it in some sense. Consider an object such as a pistol. If I say, “a pistol”, I'm simply indicating any of the hundreds of millions of pistols in existence. But if I want to identify the pistol which belongs to Marie, I say “Marie's pistol”, which specifies only the pistol which belongs to Marie (assuming she owns only one, which is not the way to bet, but I digress). English, like Latin and many other languages, modifies a noun to indicate possession, but this isn't the case for all languages. In French, for example, one would say «le pistolet de Marie», literally “the pistol of Marie” which, if somewhat awkward in English, at least talks around the issue of punctuation. But let's bite the bullet, as it were, and deal with English as she is writ.

The key thing to remember is that when forming the possessive of an English noun, you always use an apostrophe. The only question is where you stick it, and how you modify the original noun when adding the possessive suffix. The curious thing I've observed in reading vast snowdrifts of careless prose is that most people's instincts are pretty good when it comes to forming the possessive form, but wretched in placing the apostrophe. This is odd, because the former is much more difficult than the latter. So let's dig shallowly into the details.

The possessives of the vast majority of singular English nouns are formed by adding “'s” to the end of the word (cat's eye, Bob's shotgun, algebra's axioms), while plurals (see below) which end with an “s” form the possessive by appending an apostrophe (horses' hooves, countries' borders, Smiths' ancestors). Possessives of irregular plurals which do not end with an “s” add “'s” (women's wiles, children's toys, oxen's yoke).

Rule 3. Possessive nouns always use an apostrophe.

You're Needs Every pronoun in English has a possessive form, none of which uses an apostrophe. For example:

Pronoun     Possessive
you your/yours
he his
her hers
it its
they theirs
we ours

Rule 4. Possessive pronouns (hers, yours, ours, etc.) never use an apostrophe.

(Exception: The rarely-used possessive pronoun “one's”, as in “One who inhabits a glass house should heave one's bricks judiciously” does use an apostrophe. You can usually talk around this by using “their” or “his or her” instead of “one's”—these are less formal, but easier to remember and acceptable in all but the most stuffy writing.)


My friend's and I love working at McDonald's. The formation of plurals in English is an exquisitely complex topic. Although the general rule for words derived from the main sources of English nouns are relatively simple, the fact that English has, for centuries, acted like a giant linguistic vacuum cleaner, sucking up the vocabulary of every language with which it has come into contact, means that it has inherited the plural conventions of dozens of other languages, while sometimes supplanting them with its own when the origin of a word is forgotten.

But here, we're not concerned with plurals, but simply with the apostrophe, and in this case, it couldn't be simpler.

Rule 5. Plurals never use an apostrophe.

(Actually, there is a tiny little obscure exception to this, but it's so infrequently encountered you needn't worry much about it, and not all references agree with this usage.)

Exceptions, Special Cases, and Grey Areas

Plurals of single letters as themselves
When referring to the plurals of letters as themselves (for example, “Remember to dot your i's and cross your t's.”), an apostrophe is often used to avoid ambiguity. This is not universal, especially when the plural of a capital letter is referred to.
Possessive of the pronoun “one”
The possessive of the pronoun “one” is “one's”, which is the sole exception to our Rule 4 above. As noted, you can often avoid this awkward construction in all but the most formal writing by using “their”, “his”, or “his or her”, all of which engender their own quibbles.


  1. If you mean “it is”, or “it has”, write “it's”. Otherwise, write “its”.
  2. Contractions (can't, I'll, you're) always use an apostrophe, replacing the omitted letters.
  3. Possessive nouns always use an apostrophe.
  4. Possessive pronouns (hers, yours, ours, etc.) never use an apostrophe.
  5. Plurals never use an apostrophe.


University of Chicago Press Staff. The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-226-10403-4.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1994. ISBN 978-0-87779-132-4.
Associated Press. The Associated Press Stylebook. New York: Perseus Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-465-00489-8.