Avoiding Apostrophe Abuse

The poor apostrophe is so often abused and misused. Sometimes it’s dragged kicking and screaming into a place where it doesn’t want or need to be. Other times it’s excluded from a place where it desperately does need and want to be.

No one means to be an apostrophe abuser. It’s just that some people do not know or remember the rules of apostrophe usage. However, if you keep in mind the purpose of apostrophes and utilize certain strategies, you can avoid being an unwitting apostrophe abuser.  

Contrary to what some people seem to believe, an apostrophe does not mean “Look out, here comes an s!”  The purpose of an apostrophe is to either signify possession or a missing letter.  With those rules in mind, let’s look at five common examples of apostrophe mistakes and clear up the confusion.

It’s vs. Its

It’s is a contraction for ‘it is’. Its shows belonging to the subject of the sentence. If you’re not sure which one to use, substitute “it is” in to the sentence and see if it still makes sense. You wouldn’t say “The dog wagged it is tail”. The sentence should read “The dog wagged its tail”, meaning the tail belongs to the dog.  “It is great to have a dog” is a sentence that does make sense so if you want to extol the benefits of dog ownership, “It’s great to have a dog” is the way to go.

You’re vs. Your

You’re is a contraction of ‘you are’. Your shows possession. Let’s say you want to compliment someone on their dog’s good behavior.  It wouldn’t make any sense to say to someone “You are dog is such a good boy” because the person is being addressed, not the dog. Therefore, the sentence should read “Your dog is such a good boy”, ‘your’ signifying that the dog belongs to the person being addressed.  If, on the other hand, the dog itself is being complimented on its good behavior, “You are such a good boy” makes sense.  ‘Your such a good boy’ does not make sense because the dog is being spoken to directly about its own behavior, not about a pet that belongs to it. Therefore, the sentence should read “You’re such a good boy.”

Who’s vs. Whose

Who’s is a contraction of ‘who is’.  Whose indicates possession.  A mother might say to her children “Who’s walking the dog today?’’ The apostrophe is needed because she wants to know the name of the child who is walking the dog.  If upon walking the dog, the child came across a dog running through the neighborhood with no owner nearby, they might produce a sentence that read “Whose dog is this?” An apostrophe is not needed because they want to know the name of the person who possesses the dog.

We’re vs. Were

We’re is a contraction of ‘we are’. Were is a past tense of to be, to have or to do. If one is indicating that they are going to the dog park with other people (or dogs) the sentence should read “We’re going to the dog park.”  If upon returning from the dog park they wanted to describe the experience, they might produce a sentence that read “The dogs at the dog park were very friendly today.”

Possessives vs. Plurals

If an s is at the end of a noun simply to pluralize it (indicate that more than one person, animal, place or thing is being discussed) an apostrophe is unnecessary. If an s is there to indicate possession an apostrophe is required.  The question “Who let the dogs out?” does not require an apostrophe because it is simply indicating that more than one dog has been let out. “Who threw the dog’s toy out?’’ does require an apostrophe because the toy belongs to the dog.

Apostrophes can be good friends to writers. Whether writing about man’s best friend or anything else, be a good friend to apostrophes and avoid abusing or misusing them.

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Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable.io, and has been building websites since the early 90s. He's one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.



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