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The Possessive Apostrophe

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It’s time to talk about being possessive. Sometimes possessiveness is good, sometimes it’s bad. However you look at it, if you’re speaking English, then you will need an apostrophe to show who owns what.

The apostrophe (‘) is one of the most used and misused English punctuation marks. No one is ever quite sure where to put it. You can use it when things are left out (contractions), but it’s the possessiveness that causes the most trouble.

The apostrophe is all about making a statement of ownership. You belong to me. This belongs to that. In grammar speak, the apostrophe shows the possessive of nouns.

There are four ways to use the apostrophe to show ownership or belonging.

1. Add apostrophe s to the end of a singular noun that does not end in s:

  • the manager’s room

2. Add apostrophe s to the end of a singular noun, even if it ends in s (this practice may vary in some places):

  • Doris’s scarf

3. Add apostrophe s to the end of a plural noun that doesn’t end in s

  • the children’s bag

4. If the plural noun ends in s, just add the apostrophe

  • my friends’ car

Notice that possessive pronouns like yours, his, hers, ours, its and theirs are not followed by the apostrophe.

Finally, if you want to play around with it, Wikipedia has a list of four phrases illustrating how the apostrophe can literally change the meaning of sentences.

  • my sister’s friend’s investments (I have one sister and she has one friend.)
  • my sisters’ friends’ investments (I have many sisters and they have many friends.)
  • my sisters’ friend’s investments (I have many sisters and they have one friend.)
  • my sister’s friends’ investments (I have one sister and she has many friends.)

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59 thoughts on “The Possessive Apostrophe”

  1. A common mistake on the MUD I run. Which is pretty bad considering it’s a text-based RPG šŸ™‚ This one inparticular is a stickler! Thanks for clearing it up.

  2. this practice may vary in some places

    How does it vary?

    And what about this:
    We’re going out with the Walkers.
    We’re going to visit the Walker’s residence.

    When does a couple’s (family’s) name get an apostrophe? Use one for ownership (their house), don’t use one when referring to them as a couple?

    Thanks, found you from a comment on thesimpledollar.com

  3. “How does it vary?”

    Some people do not use the s when singular nouns end with s (they follow pronunciation).

    i.e., Doris’ hat.

    There is no standard rule as far as I know here.

    Regarding family names, the process is like you said. Use the apostrophe if you want to state ownership or belonging.

    Your second phrase, however, would read like this:

    Weā€™re going to visit the Walkersā€™ residence.

  4. The only part where both versions could diverge is the one regarding the singular nouns ending with an s.

  5. Good post. My question is about a list of things that posses one thing.

    Shaun and Geji’s house was nice.
    Shaun’s and Geji’s house was nice.

    They both own the house. I think the second one is right. however the first one sounds better to my ear. Which one is correct?

  6. Have the rules changed so drastically that this is now acceptable?

    “You don’t drive like her, why should you pay the same insurance as her?” (T.V. commercial for insurance)

  7. I have seen the apostrophe misused so much when it comes to “its vs it’s”. The possessive is acutally “its” and the contraction “it is” is shortened to “it’s”.

    Another grossly abused contraction is “there’s”. I keep seeing it used with plural nouns/objects as in:

    “There’s dogs running everywhere.” It should be “There are dogs running everywhere.”

    I do agree that most people don’t even realize what they are saying when they use “there’s” or “that’s” incorrectly with plurals.

  8. What about names that end in S? For example, are the possessive forms of Jesus and Moses Jesus’ and Moses’ or Jesus’s and Moses’s? I read somewhere it has to do with style, but Oxford’s website says that of the ending sounds like -es then it only requires an apostrophe at the end.

    What is the proper use?

  9. All of your questions can be professionally answered by going to The Apostrophe Protection Society site. It’s free and you would be made very welcome. Jeff.

  10. I have a doubt regarding the use of the apostrophe in the following contex:

    An organizationĀ“s directory which contains the profiles of each member of the organization.

    Would you say?
    1) Individual membersĀ“profiles
    2) Inidividual member profiles
    3) MembersĀ“profiles

    I think the correct answer is “MembersĀ“profiles” even though “Individual membersĀ“profiles” could also work.

    Can you advise please?

    Thank you

  11. I need help capitalization and apostrophe placement for the following — which is correct in describing one’s level of education in a bio.

    master’s degree?
    Master’s degree?
    Master’s Degree?

    Thanks,

    Liz Reed

  12. Shaun asked about:

    Shaun and Gejiā€™s house was nice.
    Shaunā€™s and Gejiā€™s house was nice.

    The correct usage is: Shaun and Gejiā€™s house was nice.

    If there are two possessors, only the second possessor gets the ‘s.

  13. Tyree asked: are the possessive forms of Jesus and Moses Jesusā€™ and Mosesā€™ or Jesusā€™s and Mosesā€™s?

    It’s Jesusā€™s and Mosesā€™s.

    We add ‘s at the end if we pronounce the additional “s”.

    When spoken, we say Jesus-es, and Moses-es.

  14. Rosa asked:

    Would you say?
    1) Individual membersĀ“profiles
    2) Individual member profiles
    3) MembersĀ“profiles

    By themselves, all of these are correct. The usage determines if they are employed correctly.

    For example:

    1) Update his individual members’ profile.

    Here the name of the thing that we must update is an “individual member’s profile”; i.e., the organization refers to a record as an “individual members’ profile”.

    2) All of the individual member profiles must be updated.

    Here the organization refers to a record as a “individual member profile”.

    3) Please update the members’ profiles.

    Here the organization refers to a record as a “members’ profile”.

  15. So not sure if this is only used colloquially or if written format is ok too…

    Brian is a hard worker. = Brian’s a hard worker. (?)

    The tree is big. = The tree’s big. (?)

    Is it ok to turn a noun into a contraction in writing?

  16. “JESUS’S words ” is awkward as used in worship, bible study, etc.

    “JESUS’ words ” is so much more simple and and easy for communication.

    ok: Alice’s words Alice’s shoes

    difficult: Alias’s words

    simple & easy: Alias’ shoes

    CAN YOU PROMOTE simplicity?

  17. Jayden,

    I never knew that “ancient proper names are the exception” to the rules. Perhaps, though I haven’t seen this in any style guide.

    Orville,

    It is actually very simple. If you pronounce “esses” at the end, as you would if you said Jesus’s, then you put an “s” after the apostrophe.

    If you don’t pronounce “esses” at the end, as in Marys’, you don’t put an “s” after the the apostrophe.

    What you have proposed would cause more confusion as it would further divorce written language from speech.

  18. Traditionally it was Jesus’ and Moses’ and Socrates’ and Pythagoras’ and Sisyphus’ and so on and so forth for every other name that ends in an ‘esse’ sound.

    That Jesus’s exists is an aberration of language indicative of the grand lack of historical sense that belies all faith in a Christian God in 2010.

    But either are correct: here’s a post from another website.

    ———————————————————————————-

    Believe it or not, native speakers are often unsure of this; and there’s no agreed “right” way to do it.

    My personal preference is to write -s’s, since it’s generally pronounced with an extra syllable: “Jesus’s” is pronounced with three syllables.

    However, many people consider this incorrect, and say you should simply add the apostrophe: Jesus’.

    Just how much disagreement there is over this is evident when you consider that in London there is a St Thomas’ Hospital and a St James’s Park. A quick Google search also reveals a large number of educational establishments which have apparently given up on the question and call themselves St Thomas University (Miami Gardens, Florida and Fredericton, New Brunswick) or University of St Thomas (St Paul, Minnesota and Houston, Texas) — the former, of course, will give a lot of grammar sticklers indigestion.

    One author, giving advice to budding writers, recommended avoiding giving characters any names that end in -s, simply to sidestep the issue altogether.

    So use one or the other, but be consistent — always -s’ or always -s’s.

    Of course, with Jesus, there is one other option available: the old-fashioned variant “Jesu”. However, I wouldn’t recommend it.

  19. Just wondering which is correct (is ‘one’ a pronoun)?

    In the dim light one might look like ones son.
    In the dim light one might look like one’s son.

  20. How do you use the apostrophe for two people who do not own the same thing e.g. (1) John’s and Mary’s code of conduct or (2) John and Mary’s code of conduct. The idea is that their perception of the code of conduct is not the same.

  21. I’ve never seen this thread before, so I hope I’m not two late to speak.

    If John and Mary don’t have the same perception of the code of conduct, wouldn’t it be ‘John’s and Mary’s codes of conduct’?

    And where I come from, the possessive form of Jesus and Moses are NOT generally pronounced with three syllables at all. ‘For Jesus’s sake’, or ‘Moses’s staff’..? They really grate on the ear.

  22. My last name ends in s. The possessive singular is Douglas’ or Douglas’s, the plural is Douglases, the possessive plural is Douglases’. These all look bad to my eye. We opted for ‘The Douglas Family’ on return address labels.

    I pity the branch of the clan that spells their name Douglass.

  23. I’m stumped on this one:

    Is it Rick’s brother’s daughter, or should it be Ricks brother’s daughter?

    Thank you!!

  24. It is the daughter of the brother of Rick, both are possessive and both require the apostrophe. It is Rickā€™s brotherā€™s daughter.

  25. Thank you, Cliff! That’s actually the way I wrote it out the first time, and then came to a complete halt, certain I had it all mixed up!

    Lisa, the comment was in reply to a friend who asked if it was Rick’s sister’s daughter or his brother’s daughter. So I had to be specific! šŸ™‚
    Thanks again, this is a great site!

  26. I know this all happened a long time ago, but I had to say something.

    ddd posted from a website:

    Just how much disagreement there is over this is evident when you consider that in London there is a St Thomasā€™ Hospital and a St Jamesā€™s Park. A quick Google search also reveals a large number of educational establishments which have apparently given up on the question and call themselves St Thomas University (Miami Gardens, Florida and Fredericton, New Brunswick) or University of St Thomas (St Paul, Minnesota and Houston, Texas) ā€” the former, of course, will give a lot of grammar sticklers indigestion.
    ———————————————————————————
    This is incredibly stupid. St Thomas University. Xavier University. Yale University. New York University. Notice something? That’s right, none of them have apostrophes! There is no demonstrable connection between the ‘apostrophe question’ and the fact that St Thomas University is called St Thomas University. Just like there is no demonstrable connection between the ‘apostrophe question’ and New York University being called New York University. To claim that there is a connection at all strains credibility.

    Just because something made it on the internet doesn’t mean you should cite it.

    Also, GRACE is right about John’s and Mary’s codes of conduct.

  27. Lee, no one mentioned a St Thomas University or Hospital, they mentioned a St Thomas’ Hospital. Hositals/schools/universities named after saints generally do indicate possession in the name with an apostrophe. Maybe you think they shouldn’t but that’s irrelevant. They do.

    They dont indicate possession with city names because a city can have more than one university/hospital so it wouldn’t be appropriate.

  28. scowie, did you really read my post? I copied and pasted from what ddd posted. He DID in fact mention a St Thomas University. I didn’t give any opinion on whether they should or shouldn’t include an apostrophe. My post was about citing bogus information from the internet.

  29. In my experience, Anglican (Episcopalian) institutions usually use the apostrophe as in St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church while other denominations do not as in St. Joseph Catholic Church or St. Timothy Lutheran Church.

  30. The other day I asked my ESL Teacher if it was correct to say “ItĀ“s a beautiful summerĀ“s day” The answer was no, you can only say summer day, she said. However, if I can say, like (or as?) in the California Dreaming song, “IĀ“ve been for a walk on a winterĀ“s day” Why canĀ“t I do the same on a summerĀ“s day?

  31. jennifer: the original 4 points given by DS are right. The only tweaks to those are that, yes, some “ancient” names that have been written in a certain form from time immemorial are exceptions: It is Jesus’, never Jesus’s, if you are talking about the most famous one, as opposed to any old Spaniard who happens to have the name. And, to be precise, the rule of adding ‘s after a word ending in s, e.g. Doris’s, is really a matter of style, not a rule of grammar or orthography. Many publishers, for example, demand an apostrophe-only following an s- ending word, so woud prescribe Doris’. Many of us, however, prefer the consistency of leaving it -‘s regardless. Even when you get triple-Ss like “congress’s”. I would never violate a general rule just because it “looks bad” in my opinion. Simply not a good enough reason, the language is idiosyncratic enough without allowing subjective aesthetics to further complicate things.

  32. when the word ending in ‘s’ is a group of people, an apostrophe is added without an ‘s’.
    the gardens belonging to our neighbours – our neighbours’ gardens

  33. As for California Dreamin’…I think that is the good old poetic license : ) or slang and all that! Most songs do not use correct English if one thinks about it!

    But, that gets me thinking, could it be be grammatically correct since it is a day belonging to summer/winter?

  34. Is it “Six to eight weeks advance notice is preferred” or “Six to eight weeks’ advance notice is preferred”?

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