Avoiding Apostrophe Catastrophes
(Courtesy of Ms. Sanders)


Interestingly, apostrophes were introduced to the English language in the 16th century (1500’s). Apostrophe in Greek means “turning away”, therefore “omission”. Originally, apostrophes were only used to mark dropped or omitted letters. However, in the 17th century (1600’s) printers started to place “an apostrophe before the “s” in singular possessive cases (“the girl’s dress”), and from then on quite frankly the whole thing has spiraled into madness. In the 18th century, printers started to put it after plural possessives as well (“the girls’ dresses”).” 1

Let’s take a look at the main uses of apostrophes:
1. Omission: apostrophes are used to show that one or more letters have been left out of a word, thus making contractions. In formal writing contractions should be avoided. Here are the most common contractions:

  • Verbs with “not”
aren’t = are not
don’t = do not
won’t = will not (in the past will was often spelled with an “o”).
More examples: isn’t, wasn’t, can’t, weren’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, couldn’t.

  • Pronouns with “will”
I’ll = I will
you’ll= you will
More examples: he’ll, she’ll, they’ll

  • Pronouns and nouns with the verb “to be”
I’m = I am
you’re = you are
who’s = who is or who has

it’s = it is or it has
we’re = we are

they’re = they are**
she’s = she is
he’s= he is
More examples: Sally’s an excellent student. (Sally is an excellent student).
Jenny’s coming over today. (Jenny is coming over today).

  • Pronouns with the verb “to have”
I’ve = I have
he’s = he has (also could be he is)
you’ve= you have
More examples: we’ve, they’ve

  • Pronouns with “would” or “had”
I’d = I would or I had
he’d = he would or he had
More examples: she’d, you’d, we’d, they’d
I’d better go. (I had better go)
He’d want to go. (He would want to go)

2. Possession: apostrophes are used to show possession, that something belongs to someone.
  • Sally’s report card shows she’s a good student. (The report card belongs to Sally (singular-one Sally) and it shows that “she is” a good student).
  • Everyone’s homework was collected. (The possessive of an indefinite pronoun is formed by adding and apostrophe and an “s”).
  • Iraq’s oil (the oil belongs to Iraq)
  • Texas’ oil (the oil belongs to Texas…since Texas is a singular noun ending with an s, the possessive can be formed by adding just an apostrophe. Texas’s oil is acceptable)
  • The girl’s book. (the book belongs to the girl (singular-one girl).
  • The girls’ book. (the book belongs to more than one girl).
  • Chris’ school (If a name ends in “s” and you want to add ‘sto show possession, you can just add just an apostrophe ( ‘ ) or an apostrophe and s (‘s). Both forms are correct. So it can also be Chris’s school.)

Remember! The word immediately before the apostrophe is the owner.
boss’s office (boss is the owner)
bosses’ office (bosses are the owners)
3. Plurals: an apostrophe and “s” are used to form the plural of a letter, a sign, a number, or a word discussed as a word.
A’s, 8’s, +’s, to’s, 1920’s “Don’t use too many and’s in your writing.”
4. Express time or amount: an apostrophe is used with an adjective that is part of an expression indicating time or amount.
Tomorrow’s school lessons may be taught over the Internet.”
“My father lost an entire day’s work when that thunderstorm knocked out our power.”


Common Mistakes!!!
*The best way to avoid common mistakes is to say the sentence to yourself while getting rid of the contraction. For example, “It’s a common mistake.” (Say “it is a common mistake” to yourself and if it makes sense, you’ve (you have) written the contraction correctly!)*

Who’s vs. Whose
Who’s = who is or who has Whose=possessive of who

Who’s or Whose book is that? (Think: “Who is book is that?” or “Who has book is that?” Make sense? No! Then it’s “Whose book is that”…possession… who owns that book!

Who’s the writer whose books for young readers have sold more copies than any other U.S. author?
It’s vs. Its
it’s = it is or it has its= possessive pronoun
It’s or its Mary’s book. (Think: “It is Mary’s book.” Make sense? Yes! Then it’s “it’s”!)

It’s a fact that a minnow has teeth in its throat.

You’re vs. Your
you’re= you are your=possessive pronoun

You’re or Your book is over there. (Think: “You are book is over there.” Make sense? No! Then it’s “Your book is over there.” You own the book!)

You know you’re supposed to be doing your homework!

They’re, Their, There
they’re = they are their = possessive pronoun there= that location

They’re, their, or there is the book! (Think: “They are is the book.” Make sense? No! So eliminate “they’re”. Is it showing possession or referring to a location? Location! So “There is the book!”)

They’re busy looking for their book! Wait! I see it over there!

Another pneumonic trick for ‘their’ is to use the letters ‘e’ and ‘i’ inside the word. Since it shows possession, try substituting ‘her’ and ‘his’. (See the ‘e’ and ‘i’?) If it makes sense with those substitutions, then you need both ‘e’ and ‘i’ for ‘their’.

Their house is on that street. (Think: Can you say ‘Her house is on that street.’ and His house is on that street’? Yes, you can, so you need both letters.)

We’re, Were or Where
we’re= we are were=past tense of the verb “to be” where= refers to a place

We’re, Were, or Where looking for the book. (Think: “We are looking for the book.” Make sense? Yes! So that’s your answer!)

We were lost in the middle of Timbuktu. No one knew where we were. Next time we travel, we're going to bring along a map.

Witch vs. Which (Not really related to our lesson…but I’m tired of seeing this mistake)
witch=a person who practices magic. which=a non-personal pronoun meaning “what one”

Witch or Which book is your favorite? (Think does a person who practices magic make sense in this context? No! “Which book is your favorite?” is the correct choice. However, “Witch” could be used in the answer: “The witch book is my favorite.” Meaning the book about people who practice magic is my favorite book.)

A pnemonic way to remember ‘witch’ as a magical person is the ‘t’. (Think: Witches brew potions and serve you a magic tea to drink. You can also sketch a broom using the letter ‘t’ as a base of your drawing, and witches fly on a broom.)

1FromLynne Truss in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, page 38.

** These are some of the contractions involved in the most common mistakes! Careful with these!!