Tag Archives: apostrophe

Commonly confused words

by Shannon Naylor

Its/It’s || Your/You’re || Their/They’re

The trick to getting these words right is to remember when to use the apostrophe. Where most people get confused is that, in English, apostrophes are used to indicate both possession and contractions (when a letter is “missing”). But what happens when you aren’t sure which takes the apostrophe?

Just remember that the rule for contractions is stronger than the rule for possession. This means that “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” mean “it is,” “you are,” and “they are” because the apostrophe indicates the dropped “i,” and “a.” And the possessives “its,” “your,” and “their” don’t take apostrophes because they have no missing letters.

Anytime I wonder if I’m using the right word, I ask myself if there are missing letters, and this helps me remember whether I should use the apostrophe version or not.

Pronoun Possessive Contraction
It Its It’s
You Your You’re
They Their They’re
There “There” is another commonly confused word, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the pronoun “they.” Use “there” when indicating a place or location.


To indicates direction or place. It’s also part of infinitives in English: to see, to go, to run.*

Too indicates a greater degree of something or an addition. You can remember this because it has an additional O.

Two is the spelling-out of the numeral 2.

Word Part of Speech Example
To Preposition I went to the grocery store.
Too Adverb I bought too many groceries.
Two Number I made two trips between the car and fridge.


* Unlike some languages, English infinitives appear as two words, but they function as one. This is why grammar sticklers will scold you for “splitting infinitives,” or putting words in between the two parts of the infinitive.

Split Infinitive: I want to definitely see that movie.

Intact Infinitive: I definitely want to see that movie.

Shannon Naylor is the post-graduate teaching intern for the CTL. 

Apostrophe catastrophe

by Shannon Naylor

One little mark has never been so intimidating. Whether it’s popping up in places it doesn’t belong or disappearing from where it’s needed, the apostrophe can be tricky to use properly. Let’s break it down.

The apostrophe signals one of two things:

  1. There are letters missing. (This is called a contraction.)
  2. The writer is indicating possession, ownership.


Ex. I’m (I am), you’re (you are), he’s (he is), let’s (let us)

Contractions are most commonly used in verbal speech, but can appear in writing for a couple of different reasons. When writing dialogue, authors will generally use contractions as people do when they speak out loud. In other professional (but not formal) writing, writers may use contractions to create a laid back, conversational tone. Contractions are generally not appropriate in formal academic writing, so it is a good idea to edit them out of your papers.


The apostrophe is also used to indicate possession. It answers the question “who owns what?” Let’s say you’re describing a dog owned by your cousin. You could say:

The dog owned by my cousin is adorable.

The dog of my cousin is adorable.

But these sentences are kind of ugly. Let’s use a possessive apostrophe (‘s, also called the genitive case) to make this cleaner.

My cousin’s dog is adorable.

To indicate an owner in the form of a singular noun, add ‘s to the end of the word. (This is what we saw above.)

The dog owned by my cousin becomes my cousin’s dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that ends in s, add just the apostrophe after the s.

The dog owned by my cousins becomes my cousins dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that doesn’t end in s, add ‘s.

The dog owned by the children becomes the children’s dog.

For help with some more complex possessive rules, check out Compound possession: Whose is what?

Shannon Naylor is the CTL post-graduate intern. In her free time, Shannon has been working on the fall musical, Guys and Dolls, as assistant director. 

Compound possession: Whose is what?

by Shamus Jarvis

When dealing with a compound subject (two or more nouns or pronouns serving as a single subject of a sentence), a writer must know how to clearly signal to the reader who possesses what. This is due to the fact that it can be confusing knowing how to express whether one or more parties within the subject share ownership of an object or experience.

For example, look at the following two sentences:

  • Bob and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.
  • Bob’s and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.

In the first sentence, the fact that only the second proper noun (Jane) is written as a possessive—indicated by the apostrophe—signifies that the children belong to both Bob and Jane. In sentence two, both proper nouns are written in the possessive form, indicating that Bob’s children are different from Jane’s children.

This shows that when all parties within the compound subject of a sentence share possession, only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form. If the parties within the compound subject do not share ownership, then each noun or pronoun should be written as a possessive.

If the compound subject contains a noun and a personal pronoun, both must be written in the possessive form in order to signify joint ownership.


  • Sarah’s and my boss went to Florida.
  • Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

When the proper noun and personal pronoun appear in the possessive form, the sentence states, the boss of Sarah and myself went to Florida. When only the pronoun is written as a possessive, the meaning of the sentence changes to read, both Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

As compound possession comes up in your writing, ask yourself, “Do the parties within the compound subject share ownership, or do they own the object(s) independently of each other?” If there is joint ownership, then only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form; otherwise all nouns should appear as possessives.


Exit SHAMUS, upstage center.

The persnickety apostrophe

by Laura Tibbetts

Apostrophes can sometimes be persnickety! If you feel that way, I hope you enjoy the following guide about when to use this lovely form of punctuation (hint: there are two main times).

THE TWO MAIN TIMES (I told you this was coming):

1. Contractionscombining two words and/or taking out letters

examples: until— ’til; you are—you’re; it is—it’s

Note: The only time there is an apostrophe in it’s is when the word is meant to be a contraction of “it is.” The possessive of the word has no apostrophe, as in this: The mouse ate its cheese.

2. Possessiveswhen something belongs to something else

  • For possessive singular nouns and proper nouns, add an apostrophe before the s

example: the cat’s hat

  • For possessive plural words ending in s, add an apostrophe after the s

example: the cats’ hats (multiple cats)

Note: For plurals like women and children, which do not end in s, add the apostrophe before the s, as in this: the children’s books

Some people get confused about what to do with words that already end in s, like Jesus or Socrates. Mostly for the sake of pronunciation, many writers will simply add an apostrophe (not another s) at the end—Jesus’ parables or Socrates’ long robe—when indicating possession.

In case you were curious, here are some examples of times not to use apostrophes:

1. With plurals (unless of course they are possessive)—for example, the plural of Monday is Mondays, not  Monday’s
2. With the pronouns his, hers, yours, or ours (and don’t forget its)
3. With who, when it is meant to be possessive—the word who’s means who is. And if you’re trying to ask who a book belongs to you would say, “Whose book is this?”

For more information, check out Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/

or Writer’s Help: www.writershelp.com (search “apostrophes,” learn about apostrophes, and complete the two exercises).

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.