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Writers Talk About Writing

Punctuation Point: Possessing the Apostrophe

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. In the latest installment of Erin's series on the correct use of punctuation, she offers tips on using the apostrophe to create possessive nouns.

The apostrophe is one of those pieces of punctuation that get a lot of people in trouble. It looks like a comma that hangs in the air rather than on the line and causes writers no end of confusion.

The apostrophe has three main uses:

  • It shows possession for a noun.
  • It shows the omission of some letters in a word.
  • It shows plurality of single letters, single numbers, and acronyms.

Today, we'll go over the basics of the first rule: creating possessive nouns. We humans love to collect things (just ask George Carlin). We pick stuff up wherever we go, and we want the world to know what belongs to us — especially when we write about it. Possessive nouns and pronouns show that ownership. Positioned correctly, that hanging comma — the apostrophe — shows you who owns what.

That's Our Stuff

Let's start with the easy bit: plural nouns. If the plural noun ends in an s, add an apostrophe:

boxes' labels
The Brenners' house

If the plural noun does NOT end in s (an irregular noun), you add apostrophe s:

children's toy
women's shoes
men's coat

So far, so good. Now let's look at singular nouns.

That's My Stuff

Whether you use just an apostrophe or an apostrophe s to make a singular noun possessive depends largely on your style guide. Most singular nouns are made possessive with an apostrophe s (this is actually the base of the apostrophe rule and why most lessons start there):

Sean's book

Some usage books and style guides will tell you to use an apostrophe s for all singular nouns, whether they end in s or not. Garner and Chicago use this rule:

James's toy
The bus's wheels

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Biblical and Classical names that end with a /zes/ or /eez/ sound get just an apostrophe:

Jesus' way
Moses' commandments
Aristophanes' plays

Plural nouns that have a singular meaning get just an apostrophe:

politics' true meaning
economics' forerunners
the United States' policy on terrorism

A sibilant possessive (the noun ends in an /es/ sound) before the word sake gets just an apostrophe:

appearance' sake
goodness' sake
conscience' sake

AP is slightly different. Use apostrophe s for singular nouns and follow the same "use just an apostrophe" exceptions that Garner and Chicago outline. But AP wants you to follow two more exceptions. If you have a proper noun that ends in s or a singular noun that ends in s and is followed by a word that begins with s, you add just an apostrophe:

James' toy
hostess' seat

And if you're following a completely different style guide, your best bet is to look up its rule.

Pronouns Are Different

If the noun is a personal pronoun, you don't need to worry about the apostrophe at all, as English offers a complete set of possessive pronouns:

his, her/hers, its

Writers often get confused with its. If you see it's, you're dealing with a contraction: it is. If you see its, you're dealing with a possessive pronoun.

You Mean There's More?

As you start to pay attention to the apostrophe, you'll see other situations that make you pause: compound words, joint possession, quasi-possessives, and more. I'll cover these rules (and the other two uses) in a future post. Until then, if you have a specific example you'd like help with, leave a comment below and I'll help you out.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 11th 2010, 3:31 AM
Comment by: David D.
I like all of this information but still feel confused about plural nouns with a singular meaning. Why use the apostrophe at all in that case? That is, I do know why but I can't nail it down in my mind.
I wish this information appeared in front of those persons making signs in stores, especially the "it's" and "its" formulations.
Friday June 11th 2010, 4:33 AM
Comment by: Farideh R. (North Vancouver Canada)
Dear Erin,

Thank you for offering your help.
Your tips about possessive apostrophe were very useful. They reminded me of my old learnings about this part of grammaar and prompted me to ask you two questions for clarification. I have learnt that if we want to attribute a thing to a person like book to John we use apostrphe s ( John's book). But if we want to attribute a thing to another thing like wheels to bus, we use 0f (the wheels of the bus). In some of your examples, like 'The bus's wheels' and 'politics' true meaning' I am confused. If you could kindly provide some explanation about them and also show the ending pronunciation of the following examples of your lesson , I would really appreciate. Examples : Jesus' way, Moses' commandments, Aristophanes' plays, politics' true meaning, James' toy and hostess' seat. Do they end with an eez sound?

Thanks again for your time.
Friday June 11th 2010, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you, both.

David: a plural noun with a singular meaning can still possess something, just as a singular noun or another plural noun can. Perhaps the way to think of it is that all plural nouns that end in "s" take just an apostrophe, no matter if their meaning is in the singular sense or plural. It may be one of those rules that you just have to memorize or (perhaps better) just have to look up each time. My copy of Chicago is full of flags for that very reason.

Farideh: you can indeed use the apostrophe to attribute one thing to another, as in "the bus's wheels." I have never heard of not being able to.

As for why just an apostrophe with certain words, it generally reflects how the word is pronounced, at least according to the "Chicago Manual of Style." However, it really is a style issue that not everyone agrees on. I might say "politcs' true meaning" without an /eez/ sound in "politics," but I think I'd say "Jesuseez way," adding an /eez/ sound to the end of "Jesus." Even Chicago will have you use apostrophe "s" for proper names, whether they end in "s" or not.
Friday June 11th 2010, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I have a problem that goes beyond Farideh's. I get the need of apostrophes. It's the pronunciation in that last sentence of hers that gets me too. And it's quite complicated. I'd add apostrophes as you do, Erin, but I'd add another syllable to Jesus' (Jesuzes) for the possessive. Likewise with Moses. But when we come to the longer word, Aristophanes', I'm content just to pronounce it the same way as the non-possessive.

Is this carelessness on my part somewhere along the way? Aristophanesez just doesn't 'sound right', and I can't imagine saying Jamez book instead of Jamezez book.
Friday June 11th 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Curtiss (Galveston, TX)
I guess I have been using AP style all along. I am just not going to make it Curtiss's swizzle stick. Just the apostrophe does it for me.
Sunday June 13th 2010, 5:09 PM
Comment by: Lais A.
These are very useful tips, but my doubt, in fact is about when to apply this "possession" structure and when not - using the same example given above: which is more appropriate - the bus's wheels of the wheels of the bus? Is that really a case of possession? Thank you.
Tuesday June 15th 2010, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Luis (York, MD)
I agree with Lais. For regular business correspondence, what is the preferred style guideline? Thank you!
Wednesday June 16th 2010, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
It makes a world of difference who your audience or readers are, when you choose your writing style and verbal pronunciations. If you are addressing national or international audiences, you best use proper style and pronunciation. That is sometimes hard to do, because all the experts don't agree on what is and what isn't acceptable. But, if you are addressing a local audience, they will comprehend your message much better if you can enunciate or punctuate to fit their local area. However, don't try speaking teenage slang if you aren't up to date on where the teenagers are at that location or time. They turn you off as phony immediately. It isn't quite as critical with adult audiences, but the same precaution should be practiced.

The prim and proper grammar teachers and copy editors will usually disagree with me, but, just check out the popular writers and their works. They are speaking to their paying audiences, not the editor or teacher.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Slobodan D. (Rijeka Croatia)
I have the same "pronunciation" problem that Jane B. refers to. It is particularly annoying when reading to somebody out loud, because the names mentioned in her comment, for example, indeed don't sound right when one reads them out loud!
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 2:55 AM
Comment by: Paul K (Basingstoke United Kingdom)
Erin - thank you for this latest episode in reminding us what we were taught at school and have since forgotten, or have just confused over time.
I have an interesting signage example, which I have often wondered about: the word on the sign outside men's public toilets (!) - in the UK at least it's a contraction of the plural possessive "Gentlemen's", and is invariably written "Gents"; but should it be "Gent's" or "Gents'"? By comparison, the companion sign is more simply written "Ladies" - but I guess that should be "Ladies'" if we're being pedantic...
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 6:22 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom)
Given the misuse of the apostrophe in today's definition for 'pucker' - 'It's meaning, however, is simply "to gather in wrinkles or folds"' - this review seems very timely.

[Thanks for spotting the error -- it's been fixed! —Ed.]
Monday April 14th 2014, 9:02 AM
Comment by: cupere (sydney Australia)
I'd love to see a an article that deals with acronyms and apostrophes! For example: I endlessly see in the 1990's, 2000's etc - I'd have thought it'd be more correct: 1990s and 2000s. I also see numerous plural acronyms written as follows CD's, DVD's and PC's (the defence that the 's abrieviates the word that's meant to be there in the end for example: P C'(omputer)s - but this makes no sense at all! We'd be writing acronyms like this if this held any water P'C's, C'D's and D'V'D's. What a mess!

Again some might defend that there is no clearer way of writing: "mind your p's and q's"…but how about "mind your pees and cues". Same idea follows for questions like these: "how many s's are there in possess?" (loses its clarity when the letter in questions needs that same letter to make it plural - apostrophe in between or not! Why not: "how many esses are there in possess?". Context make this clear even if people aren't so used to seeing letters spelt out and it avoids one thinking that one has to put an appostrophe wherever and whenever one becomes unsure - that's what appears to be the case nowadays. Could I get a treatise/feature article from one, or more, of you grammar gurus on one, or more, of my above points? It's high time!

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