Back To CourseComprehensive English: Overview & Practice
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Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.
An apostrophe is that little punctuation mark at or near the end of a word that makes a noun possessive or helps to form a contraction. Sometimes, it can be tough to know exactly where to put it or when to use it, and errors with apostrophes are fairly common. In this lesson, we'll discuss how to use apostrophes properly to form contractions, as well as how to know the difference between a contraction and a possessive pronoun. (Hint: Possessive pronouns don't include apostrophes.)
The word contract literally means to get smaller. Sure enough, when you use contractions when you write and speak, you're making words smaller. A contraction is a combination of two words, with an apostrophe taking the place of the letter or letters that have been omitted.
We tend to use contractions quite a bit when we speak, and in informal writing - like emails to friends - using contractions is perfectly acceptable. In formal academic and professional writing, which would include pretty much any assignment that you do for school and most writing you might do for work, you should avoid using them. Contractions are too conversational and informal to include in anything where you'll be trying to put your best writing skills on display.
There's no magic formula for figuring out how contractions are formed. Instead, familiarize yourself with some of the most commonly used contractions. For example:
I + am = I'm
you + are = you're
he + is = he's
she + is = she's
it + is = it's
we + are = we're
they + are = they're
I + have = I've
I + will = I'll
there + is = there's
who + is = who's
are + not = aren't
is + not = isn't
do + not = don't
can + not = can't
should + not = shouldn't
that + is = that's
let + us = let's
here + is = here's
should + have = should've
will + not = won't
Note that that last one, 'won't,' is a bit unusual, as it doesn't follow the usual pattern of just dropping a letter or two. With this contraction, three letters are dropped, and the letter 'o' and an apostrophe are added.
When thinking about contractions and apostrophe use, it's useful also to think about possessive pronouns, mainly so that you can avoid confusing them with contractions. You may recall learning that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of, or refers to, a noun. A possessive pronoun is one that shows ownership. Examples of possessive pronouns are:
Note that the form of possessive pronoun that you'll need can depend on the structure of your sentence. For example, you'd say:
That is my book.
The book is mine.
You'd also say:
That is her car.
The car is hers.
Another example is:
That is their house.
The house is theirs.
Just take note of which possessive pronoun form to use based on whether the noun that is owned comes right after the possessive pronoun or if the possessive pronoun refers back to a noun that came earlier in the sentence.
As you consider commonly used possessive pronouns, think about whether you would need apostrophes in examples like 'hers,' 'ours,' and 'theirs.' You might start thinking that you'd write these possessive pronouns out like this:
The suitcase is her's.
Those groceries are our's.
Put our trash can next to their's.
If that's how you were envisioning writing these possessive pronouns, you'd be making a mistake. Remember that I mentioned earlier that possessive pronouns do not include apostrophes. People make the mistake of putting apostrophes in them quite often, but you should work to avoid making that mistake, because it can cost you points on essays and tests.
The words her's, our's, and their's don't exist. Instead, you should always write those words without the apostrophes.
There's a reason that it's useful to consider contractions and possessive pronouns at the same time, even though these two types of words have very different functions. Several contractions sound just like possessive pronouns, but there's a key difference among them - other than the fact that they have different meanings and serve different roles in sentences. Just as before, the major difference to keep in mind is this: Possessive pronouns do not include apostrophes. Here are some examples of sound-alike contractions and possessive pronouns:
it's / its
You could say, 'It's going to rain today,' using the contraction 'it's' for 'it is.' The sentence, 'The cat chased its tail,' makes use of the possessive pronoun 'its.'
there's / theirs
You could say, 'There's one more week of spring,' using the contraction 'there's' for 'there is.' The sentence, 'The child is theirs,' makes use of the possessive pronoun 'theirs.'
you're / your
You could say, 'You're going to have to study,' using the contraction 'you're' for 'you are.' The sentence, 'Your dinner is ready,' makes use of the possessive pronoun 'your.'
who's / whose
You could ask, 'Who's knocking on the door?' using the contraction 'who's' for 'who is.' The question, 'Whose pen is this?' makes use of the possessive pronoun 'whose.'
Note, again, that none of the possessive pronouns mentioned here have apostrophes. When you're writing one of these sound-alike words, always ask yourself: 'Do I need a word that shows possession here? Or, do I need a contraction - a shortened version of two words?' By stopping and taking just a couple of seconds to ask yourself these questions when you're writing, you'll always know whether to include an apostrophe or not, and you'll be able to avoid a very common writing mistake - and avoid losing valuable points on essays and tests.
Here's a word of caution: when we say that possessive pronouns don't include apostrophes, we're talking strictly about the case of possessive pronouns, like 'theirs' and 'ours.' That rule doesn't apply to indefinite pronouns, which don't refer to a specific person or thing. Indefinite pronouns, like everyone, anybody, or somebody, would use an apostrophe to be become plural. Here's an example: 'Everyone's books are in the classroom.'
An apostrophe is that little punctuation mark at or near the end of a word that makes a noun possessive or helps to form a contraction. A contraction is a combination of two words, with an apostrophe taking the place of the letter or letters that have been omitted. There's no absolute formula for how contractions are formed. Instead, familiarize yourself with some of the most commonly used contractions, like I'm, you'll, they're, and it's.
A possessive pronoun is one that shows ownership. Some common possessive pronouns are hers, whose, its, and their.
Several contractions sound just like possessive pronouns, but there's a key difference among them - other than the fact that they have different meanings and serve different roles in sentences. The major difference to keep in mind is this: Possessive pronouns do not include apostrophes.
When you're writing one of these sound-alike words, always ask yourself: 'Do I need a word that shows possession here? Or, do I need a contraction - a shortened version of two words?' By asking these questions, you'll be able to avoid confusing the contraction 'it's' with the possessive pronoun 'its,' the contraction 'they're' with the possessive pronoun 'their,' the contraction 'you're' with the possessive pronoun 'your,' and the contraction 'who's' with the possessive pronoun 'whose.'
After this lesson, you'll be able to:
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Back To CourseComprehensive English: Overview & Practice
14 chapters | 136 lessons