PSA: Managing Contractions

Today’s question comes from Jim A.

I have a simple question:

If I say, “That’s the cat’s toy,” then “cat’s” is possessive and correct with an apostrophe. [Right-O, Jim. Continue.] But if I say, “Your cats outside,” I am making a contraction with cat and is.  Should it be “cat’s,” which appears possessive or “cats,” which appears to be plural?

That’s a good one, Jim. The Grammar Cat comes to you from Texas, so we’re no strangers to blending two (or more) words into one for efficiency’s sake. The heat down here makes things melt into each other, and words are no exception.

Before we get right to it, let’s talk about an important use of the apostrophe. With the exception of possessives, the apostrophe functions as a placeholder for missing letters or numbers. That’s why we use it in contractions like can’t and didn’t. Can’t, of course, is short for cannot. Pull out the second n and the o, insert the apostrophe to indicate missing letters, and you have yourself the contraction. Similarly with did not, you can replace the o with an apostrophe, but you don’t replace the space between words with one. One of my personal favorites is shouldn’t’ve, which is actually three words squashed into one, because like I said, it’s hot down here. Must conserve energy. If there are still questions on it, you might check out our previous post that goes into more detail.

The same use of the apostrophe goes for numbers, specifically decades. Take for instance the 1980s, most famous for big hair, power ballads, and Alf.

The mortal enemy of TGC: Alf

AKA Grammar Cat’s mortal enemy

When it’s shortened and the 19 is taken out, most people know instinctively that there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere, but that’s about where general understanding ends. So then we get a whole lot of the 80’s, which is incorrect. It should be the ’80s. That’s because what’s been taken out is the 19, which comes before the 80. Nothing’s been taken out between 80 and s, and it’s not possessive, so there shouldn’t be an apostrophe between the 80 and the s. However, if you’re talking about something that a decade possessed, you could add an apostrophe at the very end.


Josie and the Pussycats was the ’70s’ most fabulous cartoon.” Of course, it sounds much better to say, “Josie and the Pussycats was the most fabulous cartoon of the ’70s,” or just not talk about Josie and the Pussycats at all.

So to answer your question, Jim, in the case you explained, you’re cramming together the words cat and is by removing one letter, which means that there needs to be an apostrophe to hold the place of the missing letter; therefore, the correct way to write it is, “Your cat’s outside.”

And I think she wants back in...

And I think she wants back in…



You know those little dangly things that stick up in the middle of words sometimes? No, not the dot in an i or a j. I mean the ones that show up in the middle of an otherwise normal word and stick WAY the hell up like they’re–ah! There’s one! AHH! And another!


Get it get it get it.

When that mark appears in the middle of a word like “they’re” or “there’s,” it’s an apostrophe. “Apostrophe” probably comes from Greek but I’m too lazy to look it up. Let’s just assume it means “little dangly thing in the middle of a word.”
Apostrophes have several uses. They show possession, as in The cat’s fabulous hairdo.
cat wig
Most of us, thank dog, have a grasp on that usage. The difference between “the cats” (plural, multiple cats) and “the cat’s” (possessive, single cat) is fairly easy to see. If it’s not easy for you to see, just nod your head anyway and we’ll cover it in a later post.


What certain people on the Internet seem to have a harder time with is the difference between a word like “your” (possessive) and “you’re,” which is a contraction of “you” + “are.” The same goes for its/it’s and their/they’re/there. This is something that will literally drive grammar people up a wall, almost as much as misusing the word “literally.”




“You’re” and “your” are homophones, like those in Claire’s last post. They sound alike and mean totally different things. But there’s a foolproof way to think about this so that you don’t uset the wrong

Contractions like “you’re,” “it’s,” and “don’t” are like Frankenstein’s monster.
It’s ‘FRAHN-ken-steen.’


Frankenstein’s monster, for those of you who slept through tenth-grade English, was cobbled together out of corpses, which is something it’s better not to think about too deeply. This is why any self-respecting portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster has to include those big-ass scars.


Bonus lesson: calling the monster “Frankenstein” and not “Frankenstein’s monster” is a quick way to distinguish English majors from everyone else. The English majors will begin twitching uncontrollably.


In a contraction like “you’re,” think of the apostrophe like a scar. You, Dr. Frankenstein, have stitched together the words “you” and “are” to make a perfect killing machine–I’m sorry, I mean contraction. A perfect contraction. Yes.
But that “a” in “are” turned out to be superfluous, like having two kidneys, so you cut it out. Removing the letter left a scar, which is the apostrophe.


You + are = you’re


Now let’s say you’re casually writing a sentence. You want to tell your BFF, Fluffy, that you caught and killed one of her favorite birds, which happens to be a grackle. But do you say “you’re favorite bird” or “your favorite bird”?


Un-Frankenstein it to be sure. Would you say “you are favorite bird”? No, because then it starts to sound like Fluffy is a bird, and she will cut you if you start spreading rumors like that.


Bitch, don’t even.


By deduction, we need “your” in this case: “Your favorite bird.”


Now, if you want to make it up to Fluffy and tell her that she’s the best cat in the world, you’d say:


“You’re the best” = “[you + are] the best.”


At this point you can stop thinking about it and move on, because “your the best” does not make any kind of sense whatsoever and will provoke grammar people into a frothing rage.
The same trick works for “it’s” (it + is), “they’re” (they + are), and “I’m” (I + am). If you can’t break it apart, it was never stitched together in the first place.


Example 1:
Look at its cute little face!


Do I mean “look at [it + is] cute little face”? No, that doesn’t make sense. Therefore “its” is correct.


Example 2:
It’s coming toward us! Run!


Do I mean “[It + is] coming toward us”? Yes!