Identifying and using apostrophes in contractions and possessives

The word ‘apostrophe’ comes from the Greek words meaning to turn from or omission. After commas, apostrophes seem to be the most misused punctuation mark.

Apostrophes are used for only two purposes: to indicate a contraction or ownership.

  • Use the apostrophe with contractions. The apostrophe is always placed where the letter has been removed. For example couldn’t, don't, isn't, you're, she's, it’s- which is “it is.” (N.B. This is the contraction, not the possessive. Possessive pronouns don’t require an apostrophe. For example Whose book is that? NOT Who’s book is that? And That book is his. NOT That book is his’.) Apostrophes can also show an inferred dialect or accent. For example d’you, g’day – the latter showing that several letters have been removed from ‘good day’.
  • Use the apostrophe to show possession. Place the apostrophe before the s to show singular possession. For example the girl's arm, the father's arm. Singular nouns take an ’s, even if the noun ends with s. for example Mrs Thomas’s bag. Plural and collective nouns not ending in s also take an ’s. e.g. children’s playtime. Plural nouns that end with s have an apostrophe added after the s. For example the students’ books. The scissors’ blades were blunt. Indefinite pronouns can also show ownership by using an apostrophe. For example One – one’s – It is best to mind one’s own business.

Apostrophes are often incorrectly used. The most common mistakes are:

  • used for plurals
  • its and it’s
  • you’re and your
  • with shortened forms CD’s (incorrect) rather than CDs
  • indicating decades as 1870’s (incorrect) rather than 1870s.

Apostrophes are not used in the plural form of acronyms or decades. For example URLs or 1950s.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: why contract?

In a text that students are studying, have students highlight the contractions and then substitute the two words that the contraction replaces. Discuss the poetical or practical reasons for contractions, for example, the rhythm and flow of a poem or the true representation of how a character speaks.

Repeat the above activity looking for apostrophes of possession. Identify whether there is one or more owners.

Have students highlight the contractions and then substitute the two words that it replaces. Discuss the poetical as well as practical reasons for contractions.

Activity 2: joint construction

Using the paragraph below on an interactive white board and some cards/ sticky notes with apostrophes and s’s, jointly construct the corrections needed.

Roberto and Kims dogs got into a fight at the neighbours house. One dog lost its collar. The other dog lost its leg. I had to call Franks lawyer to see what he could do. The lawyers name was Phoenix. Frank said I could visit Phoenix house, but I didnt want to drive over there. After all it was Roberto and Kims problem, not mine. Besides, Phoenix fees were outrageous. I left Bob and Kim to go watch a movie. For some reason 27 movie-goers dogs were fighting too. I called the police. They didnt believe me. They said to call someone elses phone, and that if I made one more prank call, they would take away my straight As from my 10th grade report card.

With thanks and approval from Trent Lorcher.

Additional online resources

Students can learn about contraction and possessive apostrophes in the department's interactive resource 'laptop wraps' Putting the apostrophe in its place.


Australian curriculum

ACELA1506: Understand how the grammatical category of possessives is signalled through apostrophes and how to use apostrophes with common and proper nouns.

NSW syllabus

EN3-6B: Uses knowledge of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary to respond to and compose clear and cohesive texts in different media and technologies.

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