The Singular Possessive Apostrophe

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A reader asks,

Could you please do a post on possessives versus plurals? I’m seeing this mistake more and more, to the point where I saw someone use an apostrophe for a plural on a billboard.

That wretched, wretched apostrophe! Why can’t we get it straight?

The answer is complicated. In this post I’ll explain why the apostrophe is used to form the singular possessive. Its use with plurals will have to wait for another post.

The apostrophe came into English from French in the 16th century. The French used the apostrophe to indicate elision: the dropping of a vowel letter. For example, in French l’heure, (“the hour”), the apostrophe stands in place of the a of the article la.

English writers use the apostrophe in the same way, to replace letters in contractions like don’t for “do not,” and I’ll for “I will” or “I shall.”

The use of the apostrophe in English would have been straightforward and not at all confusing if it hadn’t been for a complication already existing in the language: the breakdown of noun inflections.

In Old English, nouns were spelled with different endings to indicate possession and number (singular or plural). Where modern English uses the apostrophe to show possession, OE used inflections. Here’s a rough idea;

king’s horse = mearh cyninges (horse of king)
king’s horses = mearas cyninges (horses of king)

The -es inflection on cyninges is the equivalent of modern ’s.

kings’ horses = mearas cyninga (horses of kings)

Cyniga is plural; the inflection -a is the equivalent of putting an apostrophe on the plural kings.

The loss of noun inflections has simplified English grammar, but it has also lumbered us with apostrophes to show possession.

As early at the 13th century–long before the arrival of the apostrophe–English speakers had become confused about the possessive.

Spoken, the possessive ending sounded like “is.” For example, “the kinges horse” sounded like “the king is horse.” Because the pronoun his was pronounced “is” in unstressed positions, the mistaken idea grew up that the possessive was formed of a noun plus his. In time, this notion enabled Shakespeare and his contemporaries to write constructions like this:

[against] the count his galleys I did some service –Othello

When the apostrophe was introduced into English orthography in the 16th century, constructions like “the count his galleys,” “James his throne,” and “the king his horse” gave way to “the count’s galleys,” “James’s throne,” and “the king’s horse.”

In the mistaken notion that the apostrophe was replacing the word his, the singular possessive was born.

The French sagely managed to avoid getting the apostrophe mixed up with the possessive by sticking with the “of the” construction, as in “la plume de ma tante”: “the pen of my aunt” (i.e., my aunt’s pen).

We could save ourselves a lot of apostrophe grief by going back to “the horse of the king” and “the horses of the kings.”

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15 thoughts on “The Singular Possessive Apostrophe”

  1. Interesting post! As an English-language editor living in the Netherlands I see this mistake a lot. Only here there is a different explanation: in Dutch, the apostrophe IS used to make plurals…when the word ends in a vowel. It’s “1 auto” (car), “2 auto’s”. So, I’m not surprised to see the Dutch doing this in English as well. But, I’ve noticed indeed that Americans seem to be increasingly picking up this habit themselves, and I never understood where they were getting it from! The Dutch aren’t THAT influential anymore. 😛

  2. The mistaken use of ‘s to form plurals in English has become so common that I catch myself doing it at times. I am not one to yearn for the “good old days” of teaching grammar and punctuation by way of diagramming sentences and mind-numbing worksheets, but I can’t help but wonder if the decline of emphasis on the minutiae has led to mistakes such as this. (The random sprinkling of commas many people use in their writing is a similar problem, although it seems more idiosyncratic.)

  3. I just stumbled across an interesting (to me, at least) conundrum (to me, at least) involving possessives. Consider:
    It is a pet peeve of mine.
    It is a pet peeve of Danny’s.

    Seems like these are at odds with “the horse of the king.” What is correct?

  4. The error I see too often: She likes these car’s.
    The error that seems to be increasing in frequency: She like’s these cars. She buy’s cars when she goe’s to Atlanta.

    What’s next? She i’s a car lover? She ha’s three cars?

  5. Danny,
    Your example, “It is a pet peeve of Danny’s,” is “a double possessive.”

    Here’s a post on it:

  6. Very interesting to learn the history of this form. In Sweden they are taught that, while Swedish uses the “s” form for possessives, English often uses the “of the” form. For example, we say “the edge of the precipice” whereas they say “the precipices edge” (with no apostrophe needed, because their plural is formed by inflection not by adding “s”, so there is no risk of confusion).

    We also say “Friends of the Earth”, “chariots of the gods”, “days of the week” and so on (but you have a lot more examples and an excellent explanation of the subtleties of when ‘s is more appropriate than “of the” under your post The Seven Types of Possessive Case).

  7. One problem with plurals that I see some variation in are possessives for nouns that end in -s. It seems natural to me to say, ” the Jones’s new home, but “the Jones’ house,” the former with two syllables, the latter with one, the surnames Amos and Lewis treated in the same manner. It seems to me that many just leave the apostrophe out in the latter: “The Jones house,” which makes Jones see adjectival.

    In recent years, I have also seen in some church writing, “in Jesus’s name” or “Jesus’s cross, for instance, where it seems that historically they have always been said, ” in Jesus’ name” or “Jesus’ cross.”

    Are there rules here, or does contextual euphony rule?

  8. @Donald K: Just to stick my 2 cents in, I grew up with the “rule” that if the S sounds like Z at the end of the word, you have an apostrophe only. If the S sounds like an S, you have apostrophe-S at the end. So, per your example, Jesus sounds (at least to me) like JEE-ziz (or maybe JEE-zuhz), so it would be Jesus’ name, etc. But a book belonging to Lewis would be Lewis’s book. The S at the end of Jones sounds like a Z, so it would be the Jones’ house. A case could be made for leaving off the apostrophe there, because let’s say the house belongs to a woman whose last name is Smith, it could be the Smith house, the Smith residence; it would not HAVE to be the Smith’s house or the Smith’s residence. It could be Ms. Smith’s house. If there is more than one person whose last name is Smith living there, it would be the Smiths’ residence (but Mr and Mrs Smith’s residence). I think Smiths’s is really going over the top). There may be some nuance of difference when using the apostrophe or not, but the general idea is (to me) the same. I think it gets really ugly if the last name ends in a double S (e.g., Childress or Burgess). The Burgess’s house…I mean, it has to end somewhere!

  9. For last names ending in “s,” you first need to decide whether you are writing about the family as a single unit (e.g., “the Jones family) or the people in the family (e.g., “the Joneses”).

    For example you would write “the Jones family is famous” (singular) and “the Joneses are late again” (plural).

    I don’t know how widely accepted this is, but I use apostrophe-s for all singular nouns (even those ending in “s,” as in “Chris”) and plural nouns not ending in “s,” and the apostrophe alone for plural nouns ending in “s.”

    My usage guidelines give me the following.
    If the family as a unit, which is singular: “the Jones’s car” (one car shared by all)
    If the family members, which is plural: “the Joneses’ cars” (various family members have their own cars)

    I venture to guess that in most cases, people refer to a house as belonging to a family as a whole, hence, “the Jones’s house.”

  10. I have never heard of the S-sound vs Z-sound rule before. In any case, the second S in Jesus has an S sound in SAE (JEE-ZUS, not JEE-ZUZ). I learned that the terminal s with a ‘s or just an ‘ is a matter of style, not a real rule. So, Chris’s house or Chris’ house. Either way, though, it should be SAID with two S sounds, i.e. KRIS-IS(Z), even if spelled Chris’. Personally, I too always use the ‘s, even if it triples the S– “Congress’s role in law”– for the sake of consistency if nothing else.

    I also learned that Jesus’ and Moses’ were to very old, established exceptions (idiomatic spellings) that were never written with an apostrophe. So Jesus’s would be wrong, even though the rule is not generalizeable.

  11. Should read, ‘were never written with an apostrophe S”.

    PS: I have always advocated dispensing with the possessive apostrophe entirely. I think it serves no purpose. English did fine without it in the past, and as the Swedish example above indicates, context usually makes the possessive obvious and renders the apostrophe unnecessary. It’s a vestigial convention. “I went to Eds house”. “That’s Toms book”. What else could those mean? Can’t think of an off-hand example where the ‘ would be needed for clarity.

  12. I just re-read the post and comments. I think we jumped the gun. Looking forward to your next post(s) on apostrophes, Maeve.

  13. @venqax (re: your first post): I would recast the phrase, and instead of “Congress’s role in law” I would make it “The role of Congress in law…” This does not change the meaning, and is more in line with other languages (e.g. French, Hebrew) that do not use apostrophes, but continue with the “la plume de ma tante” type of construction.

    @PreciseEdit: I kind of agree with you, but I think that skipping the apostrophe-S construction might make things easier. I’m not sure how much difference it makes how many people are in the family or how many cars the family has.
    -The Jones car(s): The car (or cars) that belong to Mr Jones, Mrs Jones or the entire Jones family. I am not sure an apostrophe is needed here because of the “The.” Compare to “The Ford factory” or “The Ford factories.”
    -Jones’ car(s): The car (or cars) belonging to a person whose last name is Jones. Compare to “Ford’s factory” or “Ford’s factories.”
    -The Joneses’ car(s). The car (or cars) that belong to the entire Jones family, assuming more than one person in the family. Again, there is that “the” in front. This is just a standard plural possessive. Compare to “The dresses’ decoration(s)” or “The glasses’ spots.”

    Your rule gets ugly if something ends in SS, e.g. “The Burgesses’s car(s)…it’s just too much, IMHO. I mean, if there is a solid rule, I will follow it, but if it’s acceptable either way, I personally would either follow a style guide (if required) or use my best judgment. I agree with venqax’s last post, which is that most of the time possession will be understood from context.

    If I am wrong, someone please correct. Maeve, you have my email address 🙂

  14. P.S. Things can be even uglier, maybe, for words ending in double Z (jazz, buzz, fizz…any others?) “The buzzes’s intensity…”? However, these few words I can think of that end in ZZ probably would not need plural or plural possessive. The issue of possession doesn’t seem so horrible for words ending in one Z, like “Jim Martinez’s dog,” but gets a bit uglier for plural possessive: “The Martinezes’ dog” vs “The Martinezes’s dog”?? Oy!

  15. Maybe I was not clear enough. I did not mean that when making a plural possessive, the apostrophe alone is optional. So, Mr. Jones’s car or Mr. Jones’ car but always “the Joneses’ car”, not “the Jones’ car” because the Jones has to be plural, regardless of issues of possession (and despite spell check).

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