Grammar Monster
Grammar Monster

What Are Possessive Nouns? (with Examples)

What Are Possessive Nouns? (with Examples)

A possessive noun is a noun indicating ownership (or possession). Here are some examples of possessive nouns (shaded):
  • a dog's bone
  • a man's jacket
  • a lion's mane
The examples above are obviously about possession (i.e., ownership). They refer to the bone of the dog, the jacket of the man, and the mane of the lion. However, possessive nouns are not always so obviously about possession. Look at these examples of possessive nouns:
  • a book's pages
  • a day's pay
  • a week's worth
  • the stone's throw
Sometimes, possessive nouns are clearly not about possession. Look at these examples:
  • The Children's Minister
  • (This is a minister for children's affairs. The minister does not belong to the children.)
  • Rembrandt's paintings
  • (These are paintings by Rembrandt. He does not own them.)
So, in order to say that possessive nouns indicate possession, you have to have a very broad definition of the word possession.

Using Apostrophes to Form Possessive Nouns

You will notice that all of the examples above end 's. However, not all possessive nouns end this way. Here are the basic rules for creating a possessive noun with an apostrophe:

TypeExample of TypePossessive NounComment
singular noundogdog's dinner
dog's dinners
Add 's for a singular possessor (in this case, a dog).
(NB: It is irrelevant how many things are owned. So, it is irrelevant if the dog has one dinner or a hundred dinners. Only the number of possessors is important.)
plural noundogsdogs' dinner
dogs' dinners
Add ' for a plural possessor
singular noun ending -sChrisChris' hat
or
Chris's hat
Add 's or ' for a singular possessor that ends s. You have a choice.
plural noun not ending -sPeoplePeople's rightsAdd 's for a plural possessor that does not end s.

Read more about creating possessive nouns with apostrophes.

Possessive Nouns with Inanimate Objects

As you can see from some of the examples above (e.g., a book's pages, a day's pay), it is possible for inanimate things (e.g. a book) and even intangible things (e.g. a day) to possess objects from a grammatical perspective. However, be aware that some writers like to shy away from using the possessive form with inanimate objects. In other words, they would prefer:
  • The pages of a book
  • the nib of a biro.
to:
  • A book's pages
  • A biro's nib
This is one of those times when you can let your instinct guide you. Both versions are acceptable. Choose the one that grates less on your ears.

Also, do not forget that some nouns can be used as adjectives. So, you might not need to make a decision on whether to use of or a possessive noun. For example:
  • A car door (best version)
  • A door of a car (possible but awkward)
  • A car's door (possible but still awkward)

Possessive Nouns in Time Expressions

Possessive nouns are common in time expressions (or temporal expressions as they're also known). For example:
  • A day's salary
  • Two days' salary
  • Three years' insurance
  • Three years' insurance
Similarly, possessive nouns are used for other measurements unrelated to time. For example:
  • Five dollars' worth
  • A stone's throw away
Note

It Helps to Know the History of the Possessive Noun

In old English, the possessive form was created by adding -es to the end of the noun, regardless of whether it was singular or plural or how it ended. It was a 100% rule — just add -es.

Then, inevitably, people starting getting lazy. They realized that all they needed to make a noun sound possessive was the S sound. So, they used as few letters as possible to retain the S sound, and they replaced any missing letters from the original -es with an apostrophe. (NB: Let's not forget that apostrophes are used to replace missing letters. So, really, the apostrophes in possessive nouns are performing their original function.)

Here are some examples:
  • Dog > Doges > dog's bone
  • (Replace the e, but keep the s for the sound.)
  • Dogs > Dogses > dogs' bone
  • (Replace the es. We already have an s sound.)
  • Charles > Charleses > Charles' house
  • (Replace the es. We already have an s sound.)
  • Charles > Charleses > Charles's house
  • (Replace the e, but keep the s, if you want another s sound, i.e., you say Charlesiz and not Charles.)
  • Children > Childrenes > Children's toys
  • (Replace the e, but keep the s for the sound.)
It works for every noun on the planet.
Top Tip

Apostrophes in Surnames

The possessive form of a family name is formed like any other noun. However, there is often confusion (especially with a surname ending -s) because the plural itself can look awkward. For example:
  • The Joneses live on the corner.
  • (Joneses is the plural of Jones. Once this bit is clear, the rest is easy.)
  • The Joneses' house is on the corner.
  • (Joneses' is the possessive form of Joneses. It follows the standard rules.)