Page 2 Cleaning Up English Study Guide for the English Basics

Apostrophes All Over

The apostrophe, like its more grounded cousin, the comma, is often thrown randomly into words for good measure by writers who don’t really know how to use it. Don’t be one of those writers. Understand all forms of punctuation and how to use each one correctly. Here are some things to keep in mind with regard to apostrophes (sometimes mistaken for “flying commas”).


Apostrophes are used to show possession. For a singular noun, you add an ’s to the end of the word to create a possessive. For plural nouns that end in s, the apostrophe goes after the s. Here are some examples:

Lauren’s sweater”
Steve’s car”
“The baby’s blanket”
“His parents’ front yard”

For singular nouns that end in s, there are varying standards. Depending on the style guide you use, the apostrophe may go after the s, and then either nothing follows the apostrophe but a space or another s succeeds the apostrophe. It doesn’t matter which style you use; just be consistent. For example:

Miles’ bike” orMiles’s bike”

Dickens’ novel” orDickens’s novel”

If you’re not sure where to put the apostrophe, find the person or thing that something belongs to, and think of the apostrophe as “pointing” to the owner of the item(s), like this:

If the park belongs to the people, then it is the people’s park. (It does not belong to the peoples as would be indicated by writing peoples’.

The location of the apostrophe can also help you understand a sentence:

“The bike actually was her cousin’s property” means that it belonged to one cousin.
However, if the apostrophe came after the s (cousins’), the bike would belong to more than one cousin because the apostrophe “points” to cousins instead of cousin.

The exception to this approach (this is English—there’s almost always an exception) is the word it. To make it possessive, you add the s but skip the apostrophe:

“The plant was losing its leaves.”

If you add an ’s to it, you’re creating a contraction and the sentence would be equivalent to:

“The plant was losing it is leaves.”

This is obviously not what is meant, and there is more about it in the next section.


Using contractions is a way to combine two words. In formal writing, you should avoid the use of contractions (especially if there is a word count: if you combine words, you’re making your writing shorter!). Contractions can be used in more informal writing and when speaking. When you combine the two words, the letter(s) that are removed in the combining process are replaced by an apostrophe. Here are some examples of contractions and the words that have been combined for each:

can’t = can not
didn’t = did not
isn’t = is not
I’m = I am
they’re = they are
we’re = we are
it’s = it is
could’ve = could have
she’s = she is

Be careful when using contractions. Sometimes their use creates other issues, like subject-verb agreement. For example:

“Here’s some toys for you to play with while you wait.”

In this sentence, Here’s is a contraction of here is. But when you substitute those words back into the sentence, it is no longer correct:

“Here is some toys for you to play with while you wait.”

This sentence now has subject-verb agreement issues because there is a single verb (is) but a plural subject (toys). The sentence needs to say:

“Here are some toys for you to play with while you wait.”

Now making a contraction of here are doesn’t work as smoothly and makes it sound like you are making car noises (here’re—that’s a lot of rrrrrrrrs). It’s better to just skip the contraction and leave it at “Here are.” In some cases, using contractions just doesn’t work.

Hint: If you are in doubt about contraction use, try breaking the contraction into the two words it stands for and see if the grammar is proper.


There’s my books on the table!” stands for “There is my books on the table.” This is incorrect because books is plural, so the word are needs to be used, instead of is.

Its vs. It’s

Many people misuse apostrophes when they are used with it. This short little word can cause big usage problems because the typical rules don’t apply to it.

In the case of it, when there is an apostrophe, it is a contraction of it is:

It’s going to be a hot day today!”

No apostrophe indicates possession with the word it:

“The sweater lost its shape when it was put in the washing machine.”

They are not interchangeable and the apostrophe does not indicate possession when it’s used with it, even though this goes against the usual possessive apostrophe rules.

Hint: When in doubt about using the apostrophe in it’s, again try breaking it into its two words: it is. See if the sentence still makes sense.


“The tree had lost it’s leaves” becomes “The tree had lost it is leaves,” which makes no sense, so don’t use the apostrophe unless you mean to indicate a contraction.

Not for Plurals

Apostrophes are generally used to indicate possession or contraction. They do not create plural words. Plurals are created by adding an s, but when there is also an apostrophe it means it’s a contraction or possessive. There are some occasions where apostrophes are used in plural words, however. Apostrophes are appropriate to use in plural nouns if omitting them would cause confusion or misunderstanding. Here are some examples where apostrophes are used in plural nouns and are not indicative of contractions or possession:

“Make sure you cross all of your t’s and dot all of the i’s.”

“Jared’s report card included three A’s, two B’s and a C.”

“There were eighteen J.D.’s and 120 M.A.’s conferred to the graduating class of 2000.”

Pronoun Problems

Pronouns are used to replace nouns in a sentence to make the writing sound less repetitive and more clear. However, if the wrong pronoun is used, then it actually creates a terrible mess. Here are some pronoun problems to be on the lookout for in your writing.

Me, Myself, and I

Me, myself, and I are all pronouns. They are not interchangeable and each has their own appropriate use, but it can be confusing to know which one to use when or in what situation. Here are some rules to keep in mind.

Rules for Me, Myself, and I

Me is an object pronoun. That means that it serves as the object of a verb or a preposition in a sentence. For example:

“Please call me with any questions.” [Who or what are we supposed to call? We are supposed to call me.]

Myself is a reflexive pronoun, which means it refers back to the subject of the sentence. Consider this sentence:

“I treated myself to a new pair of shoes after my promotion at work.” [Who or what was treated? I (the subject) and myself refers back to the I.]

I is a subject pronoun. That means it acts as the subject in a sentence, such as this one:

“I answered the phone.” [Who or what answered the phone? I answered.]

Quick Test for I vs. Me The most commonly confused (and therefore misused) pronouns are I and me and that usually occurs when other people are present in the sentence. For example:

“Cheryl and me went to lunch last week.”

This sentence misuses the pronoun me and, to realize that, we take Cheryl out of the sentence and see what we have left:

“Me went to lunch last week.”

Nope, not unless you’re a cave person. If Cheryl hadn’t gone, you would say:

“I went to lunch last week.”

Just because Cheryl joined you, the pronoun doesn’t change. It’s “Cheryl and I went to lunch last week.” Plus, in this sentence, I is the subject pronoun, which works.

This doesn’t mean that it’s always I that gets used when there’s another person in the sentence. Consider:

“She gave the book to Sandy and I to read.”

Without Sandy, it would be:

“She gave the book to I to read.* Does that sound right? It shouldn’t because it’s not. This sentence needs me:

“She gave the book to me to read.” So if Sandy gets to share, too, it’s “She gave the book to Sandy and me to read.” Plus, in this sentence, me is the object pronoun, which works.

To determine whether to use I or me in a sentence, take the other subject(s) or person(s) out of the sentence and see what sounds right. It should be pretty clear which one to use.

Other Pronoun Problems

Other common pronoun problems arise simply from selecting the incorrect pronoun form or choosing a pronoun that is only vaguely connected to its antecedent. Pronouns are useful, but only when they are used correctly.

Object vs. Subject

Subject or subjective pronouns include I, she, he, you, it, we, and they. They are pronouns that replace the subject in a sentence. For example:

“The girl walked to school with friends.”

The subject (girl) could be replaced with a pronoun so that the sentence would read:

“She walked to school with friends.” (You would not use her.)

Object or objective pronouns include me, you, us, him, her, them, and it. Object pronouns replace the object in a sentence (the word that tells what is being done to, from, or with the action of the sentence). Let’s use our sentence from subject pronouns:

“The girl walked to school with friends.”

When we replace friends with an object pronoun, the sentence would become:

“The girl walked to school with them.”

And, if you wanted to get really fancy, you could use both subject and object pronouns:

“She walked to school with them.”

Just be sure the identification of she and them is made clear in nearby sentences.

The phrase “between you and me” is one of those phrases where understanding word parts is important. It is considered grammatically correct to say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” The word between is a preposition and should be followed by an objective pronoun, not a subjective pronoun. So it’s between you and me rather than between you and I.

Vague Pronoun Reference

Vague pronoun references make it difficult to tell to who or what a pronoun is referring. It usually occurs when there are multiple antecedents, when the antecedent is hidden or implied, or when the antecedent is missing altogether. It is important to make sure that pronouns refer to one unmistakable noun. If there might be confusion, consider omitting the pronoun and using the noun instead. Consider this:

“When Jimmy hit the ball toward the window, it broke.”

One might assume that it is the window that broke, but that’s not necessarily the only option. To clarify, write this:

“When Jimmy hit the ball toward the window, the window broke.”