How to Properly Use Apostrophes

Apostrophes come up in a variety of written settings, and using them properly is a crucial part of writing well in college. I’m not sure if there is a lapse in the education system or merely a lack of understanding of how these puppies work, but I’ve seen a ton of improper apostrophe usages lately. I felt those needed to be addressed. The next time you go to apostrophize your work, you may want to know what you should and shouldn’t do. Here are a few do’s and don’ts of apostrophes you can employ in your writing.

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PS: I thought I was making up a cool slang word with apostrophize until Microsoft Word told me it was a correct word. I looked it up and felt like a total genius. It is a word. Who knew?


Common Uses for Apostrophes

Apostrophes are almost always used to contract two words or to show possession. Words like “don’t,” “can’t” and “it’s” use apostrophes in place of missing letters when two words are put together. An apostrophe may also be used at the end of a word that has a missing letter, like “goin’.” If you are trying to say that one word owns another word, you will use an apostrophe to show who is in charge, in essence. “That is Harry’s locker.” There are other uses for apostrophes, but that covers the basics.

Common Errors with Apostrophes

I see a lot of odd uses for apostrophes, specifically when an s follows the apostrophe. I was at a nice restaurant the other day, and my husband and I were looking over the wine list. The titles for the sections on the list were “Red’s” and “White’s,” rather than “Reds” and “Whites.” I also saw a billboard later on that said “This is what the PRO’S use” (including that emphasis). There was no possession or contraction involved with those titles. They just randomly had apostrophes. You need to make an effort to avoid problems like that in your own writing.

Weird Acceptations to the Rules

Most people have a problem understanding “it’s” versus “its.” “It’s” represents “it is.” You should be able to replace it with “it is” in anything you write. If you can’t, you need to use “its.” That reflects possession. You would think that “it’s” would reflect possession just as much as it does a contraction based on the rule, but alas, it doesn’t. That’s the English language at its finest.

Some people say that you should use an apostrophe for a set of years, like the 1960′s. Others say that you should write dates without apostrophes, i.e. 1960s. I have had clients ask me for both forms in my writing experiences, so I can’t tell you which one is “right” or “wrong.” You may just want to ask your professor about that before you turn in a paper. If you need to apply for essay scholarships, don’t use an apostrophe. That can be your default option.


Learning to use apostrophes properly takes time, but you have to do so if you want to have a clear understanding of the English language. Also take the time to learn the difference between seminal sounding words, like “their” and “they’re” or “you’re” and “your.” If you improve your grammar and vocabulary, you will have a much better chance of writing great essays for college. You just need a little practice and a clear idea of what you’re trying to say. Soon enough, the apostrophes will just flow out of your fingers naturally.

James  McGraw