What Is the Difference Between Years and Year’s?

We often hear the phrase, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?” While many of us may be excited to see the end of the year, we often don’t think about the subtle difference between “years” and “year’s.”

“Years” is the plural form of year, indicating multiple years. We use “year’s,” with an added apostrophe, to indicate the singular possessive form of the word “year.” You can also write the word as “years’,” which is the plural possessive form. While the words “years” and “year’s” sound similar phonetically, each has a slightly different meaning.

The word “year” is simple. The English language, however, is far more complicated. But complicated doesn’t have to mean difficult. Read on to learn more about the word “year” and all its spelling variants. 

Understanding Correct Usage for the Plural: Years

Looking at the word “years, one of the first things you may notice is that there is no apostrophe. “Years” is a plural word, speaking literally of multiple years or hyperbolically of a long period of time (source). 

Aside from New Year’s Day, this is likely the word you would come across most often during the year. You can see this in examples such as:

  • She spent five years working on her novel.
  • The months blended into years, and before he knew it, he had graduated.
  • The young man was 23 years old.
  • “Must you spend years getting ready?” Abby remarked, exasperated.

We use the word “years” mainly when referring to multiple years since it is the plural form of the noun “year.” In your writing, be sure to keep in mind both singularity and plurality.

We also know “years” is a noun, so it either stands in place of a subject or as part of an object in a sentence (source). 

Using Years as the Subject of Your Sentence

When you use the word “years” as your sentence’s subject, you will need to follow subject-verb agreement rules. So, if your sentence’s subject is singular, the verb must be as well, and vice versa.

The same rule applies for plurals — a plural subject must always have a plural verb.

This means that when year/s is the subject in your writing, you will know whether to use “years” or “year” based on the plurality or singularity of the verb.

Pronouns must also be in agreement with the subject’s plurality or singularity (source). We use pronouns in place of the original subject (or noun) to prevent repetitiveness. The pronoun must represent the subject accurately as well.

If we don’t follow subject-verb agreement rules, you’ll end up with a sentence like the following that is incorrect:

  • The year were leaping by far quicker than she imagined they would.

Reading this sentence aloud, you can hear that something sounds wrong. The subject-verb agreement is incorrect because the subject is singular and the verb is plural.

If you follow subject-verb agreement correctly, grammatically correct sentences look like this:

  • The years were leaping by far quicker than she imagined they would.
  • The year had leaped by far quicker than she imagined it would.

In learning how to write well in English, one of the best ways to learn where you’re going wrong is to vocalize the sentence you feel concerned about.

By saying these sentences out loud, you can figure out which part sounds wrong and potentially see which word or phrase would sound or fit better in its place.

Understanding Correct Usage for Singular Possessive: Year’s

In the word “year’s,” the apostrophe comes at the end of the word “year.” Since the apostrophe comes before the “s,” you can see that here “year” refers to a singular year. In this context, the apostrophe can have one of two purposes. 

The Apostrophe for Contraction

We may use the apostrophe for contraction, meaning that “year’s” is a shorter way of writing “year is” or “year has.” Below are two examples indicating that the apostrophe refers to the phrase “year is.”

  • This year’s the year of the ox, according to the Chinese zodiac.
  • Relax, the year’s going to end soon enough.

Next, you’ll find two examples indicating that the apostrophe refers to the phrase “year has.”

  • The year’s had a rough start.
  • The year’s gone by quickly.

If you want to see more examples of contractions, look no further than The Oxford New Essential Dictionary, available on Amazon. 

This dictionary offers more than 100,000 definitions, but it also provides various illustrations and word histories that can be valuable whether you’re learning in a classroom or at home.

The Apostrophe for Possession

Alternatively, the apostrophe in “year’s” can also show possession. This is an example we often encounter at the start of the New Year. 

An easy way to understand this is to switch around the word order. In possessive cases, the -‘s indicates that the two concepts are related.

She had a year’s experience teaching ballet.

The New Year’s party was a success.

In the first sentence above, referring to the experience of a single year, “experience” belongs to “year’s.” And in the second sentence, the party similarly belongs to the new year.

From the previous paragraphs, we now know the difference in meaning for all the variants of “year.” The only thing remaining to learn is how to use these in your writing.

Understanding Context

To understand which form of year or years, with or without an apostrophe, that you need to use, you not only need to understand the correct grammar, but you also need to understand the context in which you are writing.

For example, if you are writing a piece of academic literature, contractions are often discouraged and, in extreme cases, forbidden (source).

In that case, if you need to use “year is” or “year has,” it is better to write it out fully, refraining from writing the contraction. In an informal text, however, you have the freedom to write whatever you wish. In this case, you can do whatever feels right to you. 

Tips in Showing Possession with “Year’s”

While writing, you realize you need to use the term “years” … or maybe it’s “year’s”? Or heaven forbid, “years’”! These words — and correct apostrophe usage — are challenging, especially since, verbally, they all sound the same.

If you have already concluded you are not referring to multiple years, the words “years” and “years’” can be excluded — the same goes for eliminating a contraction. That leaves you with the possessive form: “year’s.”

Just remember that if you are using an apostrophe that does not denote a contraction, something must “belong” to the year.

If you need assistance keeping track of all these rules, make sure to invest in Dreyer’s English guide on Amazon. It is an excellent style guide that can help you study grammar in an easy yet enjoyable way.

Understanding Correct Usage for Plural Possessive: Years’

Once again, “years” refers to the plural of the noun “year.” However, in the word “years’,” the apostrophe has its own purpose: showing possession for a plural noun.

The previous example of the girls’ school at the beginning of the article is an example of possessiveness combined with a plural.

The word “years” indicates the plural of “year,” multiple years, just as girls is the plural of one girl. The apostrophe indicates possessiveness or belonging/ownership. 

Some examples of years’ in a sentence include:

  • The job required five years’ experience.
  • She felt she had barely grown in 10 years’ time.

You may have noticed that “years’” sounds phonetically identical to “year’s.” It’s easy to get confused. However, the steps below should help you to avoid any mistakes in spelling.

Determining When to Use the Plural Form 

To make sure “years’” is the correct form that you want to use, you must first make sure of two things. First, are you referring to a single year or multiple years?

If you are referring to more than one year, you will use the word “years.” For the singular form, you must use the word “year.”

Second, if the word is plural and you are unsure whether it is possessive, try putting the word “of” after “years,” in place of the apostrophe, to see how it sounds. 

This is a simple trick that will help you to see if you are using the apostrophe correctly. The preposition “of” denotes a relation similar to what an apostrophe represents.

Below are some examples:

  • She had just turned five years old.
  • They wanted an employee with 10 years’ coding experience.

If you say, “She had just turned five years of old,” it is nonsensical and sounds incorrect. You can conclude the word “years” does not need an apostrophe in this sentence.

On the other hand, “They wanted an employee with 10 years of coding experience” makes sense, as the apostrophe in this plural possessive stands in place of the preposition “of.” 

Using Apostrophes Correctly in Your Writing

To begin understanding the difference between years and year’s, we first need to learn more about the purpose of the punctuation mark we all know — and love…or hopefully at least tolerate — as the apostrophe. 

To differentiate correctly between “years,” “year’s,” and “years’,” we need to understand why there is (or at times is not) an apostrophe in the word.

In English, apostrophes have three purposes: to indicate possession, to indicate a contraction, or to indicate plurality. 

Using the Apostrophe to Indicate Possession

The first purpose of the apostrophe is to show possession (source). You can see an example of this in the following sentence:

  • The girl’s brown hair glistened in the sunlight.

The apostrophe above shows that the brown hair belongs to the girl. In most sentences with a singular subject, you can attach an apostrophe and an “s” to the end of the noun in order to show possession. 

In sentences with a plural subject, however, you instead need to put an apostrophe at the end of the noun, after the -s. Take a look at the example below.

  • The principal at the girls’ school had never encountered such insolence.

In this sentence, the writer used the plural of “girl” (girls). This is because the school they’re speaking about is not a single girl’s school but, rather, it is a single-sex school where all of the learners are girls.

Therefore, the school “belongs” or relates to multiple female learners.

For general possession, we have come to expect words to end with “apostrophe + s.” The additional “s” is not necessary above because the word is already plural and already ends with the letter “s.” 

Writers apply this rule discriminately, as there are many cases of regular nouns ending with an “s” that will either take “apostrophe + s” or an apostrophe as its end. Here are some examples:

  • The bus’s tires popped as they rolled over the nail.
  • Mr. Jones’ spectacles slipped down his nose.

In both sentences above, the rules seem contradictory, but either case is correct in written form.

An easy way to determine which you should use is to see which form sounds more natural while speaking and write it as such. It would sound awkward to add an extra “s” sound to the end of Mr. Jones.  

Using the Apostrophe to Indicate Contractions

The second use of an apostrophe is to create a contraction. When creating contractions, apostrophes stand in place of missing letters or sounds. 

You will not find this often in formal writing, but it is ever-present in our day-to-day interactions and informal language. Some common examples include:

I’veI have
They’reThey are
Can’tCannot
He’dHe would
There’sThere is

Using the Apostrophe to Indicate Plurality

The third use of the apostrophe is to show plurality. This does not apply to most words, but in the case of numbers and letters and when referring to multiples of words, you will see it. Take a look at the sentences below:

  • Do not forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s!
  • She received four A’s, yet she still grimaced when she saw two C’s.
  • He had written 13 sorry’s in his apology letter.

Some of these grammatical rules can be tricky, but in time, you’ll start to recognize patterns and become more familiar with some nuances when it comes to proper apostrophe usage. 

If you want to learn more about plurals and apostrophes, take a look at the article, “Todays or Today’s: Which Is Correct?

Final Thoughts

The word “year” has many variants and many that are phenotypically identical. In writing, however, their differences are clear. These differences help us see whether we are dealing with plurals, singulars, contractions, and even possessions.

In time and with practice, you’ll be able to differentiate between each spelling and know with certainty whether or not you should use an apostrophe.

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