Tips from the Professor

While most of the rules regarding apostrophes are pretty straightforward, there are some situations related to apostrophes that seem to give a lot of people a lot of trouble. Here are some helpful tips:

  1. It’s is a contraction for it is. If you need to make it possessive, as in its creepy eyes, you shouldn’t use an apostrophe. Because of the contraction, the possessive its goes against the normal rules.
  1. Sometimes, you’ll see writers use an apostrophe when referring to decades like the 1980’s. However, it’s standard now to write the 1980s without the apostrophe.
  1. To make a compound word such as mother-in-law possessive, just add an ’s to the last word. Here is an example:
My mother-in-law’s weekly phone calls make me really nervous.
  1. If you need to show joint possession, only the last word should be made possessive, as illustrated in this example:
Alex and Megan’s zombie-proof fence is certainly admirable.

Watch this video of the grammar professor, as she helps her student understand how to use apostrophes correctly.

Video Transcript


Student: You made a note on my essay that I am using apostrophes unnecessarily. What does that mean?

Professor: I noticed you were using apostrophes to make words possessive when you really meant to have words be plural.

Student: I am not sure what you mean. Can you give me an example?

Professor: Apostrophes should not be used when you are simply making a word plural – meaning more than one. Instead, apostrophes should be used to show possession or ownership.

There is a big difference between

The students went to the basketball game yesterday.

The student’s books cost $500.00 for one semester!

In the first sentence, “students” simply means more than one student, so there is no need for an apostrophe.

In the second sentence, “student’s” refers to the books that belong to the student, so we need an apostrophe to make “student” possessive.

Student: That helps a lot! If I think I might need an apostrophe, I just need to ask myself if the word is showing possession of some kind.

Professor: Exactly!

This presentation was brought to you by the Excelsior Online Writing Lab.

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