Using Apostrophes to Show Possession (Grammar Lesson)


 
Apostrophes are used to show possession. For example:

  • The horse's hay
  • The horses' hay
The big question is where to put the apostrophe. Does it go before or after the s? The quick answer:

For one horse (or one possessor), put the apostrophe before the s. For more than one horse (or more than possessor), put the apostrophe after the s.

(Beware! There are some exceptions to this rule.)
 

Apostrophes Are Used to Show Possession

An apostrophe and the letter s are often used to show possession.

When using an apostrophe to show possession, the very first thing you have to think about is whether the possessor is singular or plural. This is important because it determines where your apostrophe goes. Look at these examples (the possessors are shown in bold):

  • The dog's kennel.
  • (With one dog, the apostrophe goes before the s.)
  • The dogs' kennel.
  • (With more than one dog, the apostrophe goes after the s.)
Below are some more examples with singular and plural possessors. The reason why apostrophes for possession cause so much trouble for writers is the number of exceptions to this basic rule. They are also covered below.

With a Singular Possessor, the Apostrophe Goes before the s

So, with one possessor, the apostrophe goes before the s.

For example:

  • Take the girl's hand and place it on the cushion.
  • (hand belonging to one girl)

  • I had to remove Peter's label and replace it.
  • (label belonging to Peter, i.e., one person)

  • Wagner's music is better than it sounds. (Mark Twain)

  • A foolish woman knows a foolish man's faults.

  • A friend's eye is a good mirror.

  • A guest should be blind in another man's house.

With a Plural Possessor, the Apostrophe Goes after the s

With a plural possessor, the apostrophe goes after the s.

For example:

  • The horses' hay is damp.
  • (hay belonging to several horses)

  • The ladies' toilets are out of bounds.
  • (toilets belonging to all ladies, i.e., more than one)

  • The fairies' wings glistened in the moonlight.
  • (wings belonging to some fairies, i.e., more than one)

An Exception to the Rule (Plural Nouns Not Ending s)

Mistakes with apostrophes to show possession are very common. One reason for this is the number of exceptions to the rules above. For example, plural words which do not end in the letter s (e.g., men, people, children) take the apostrophe before the s when showing possession.

Examples:

  • He is the people's poet.

  • All television is children's television.
  • Richard P. Adler)

  • Zeus does not bring all men's plans to fulfilment.
  • (Homer, 800-700 BC)

  • My watch was stolen from the men's changing room.

Exception to the Rule (Singular Nouns Ending s)

To make things even more complicated, singular words which end in s (e.g., Charles, Wales, Paris, Dickens) can end in ' (i.e., just an apostrophe) or 's when showing possession.

Examples:

  • It is Charles' birthday. It is Charles's birthday.
  • (both correct)


Charles' or Charles's pal (both correct)

  • I have not seen Wales' new stadium.
  • I have not seen Wales's new stadium.
  • (Both of these are acceptable.)


Les' or Les's wife (both versions correct)

Both Charles' birthday and Charles's birthday are grammatically correct. However, as a guideline, you should use the version which best matches how you would pronounce it. In other words, use Charles's if you pronounce it "Charlesiz", but use Charles' if you pronounce it "Charles".

More examples:

  • Dr Evans' report
  • (for those who pronounce it "Dr Evans report")

  • Dr Evans's report
  • (for those who pronounce it "Dr Evansiz report")

  • Miss Williams' victory
  • (for those who pronounce it "Miss Williams victory")

  • Miss Williams's victory
  • (for those who pronounce it "Miss Williamsiz victory")

  • IT Solutions' conference
  • (for those who pronounce it "IT Solutions conference") (where "IT Solutions" is considered as singular)

  • IT Solutions's conference
  • (for those who pronounce it "IT Solutionsiz conference")

Exception to the Rule (Compound Nouns)

Here is another quirk. Some compound nouns (e.g., sister-in-law) do not form their plurals by adding s to the end. The s is appended to the principal word (i.e., the plural is sisters-in-law). With a noun like this, the possessive form is created by adding 's to the end, regardless of whether it is singular or plural.

SingularPlural
  • sister-in-law's pond
  • colonel-in-chief's arrival
  • maid of honour's bouquet
  • sisters-in-law's husbands
  • colonels-in-chief's meeting
  • maids of honour's dresses

Read more about forming the plurals of compound nouns.

Apostrophes with Joint Ownership

Finally, joint ownership is shown by making the last word in the series possessive. Individual ownership is shown by making both (or all) parts possessive.

Example:

  • Andrew and Jacob's factory (joint ownership)
  • (Note: only the last part is possessive)

  • Andrew's and Jacob's factories
  • (individual ownership)
    (Note: both parts are possessive)
    (Without context, it will be assumed that Andrew has one factory and Jacob has one factory. Another construction is required if this is not the case:
    "Andrew's factories and Jacob's factories" is one option.)

  • India and Pakistan's problems
  • (common to both)

  • India's and Pakistan's problems
  • (separate problems)
 


Take the test on apostrophes showing possession.
 
 
GENERALLY, THE RULING IS:

BEFORE FOR SINGULAR
AFTER FOR PLURAL


Singular possessor? Put your apostrophe before the s:

  • the cat's dinner (one cat)
  • the cat's dinners (one cat)
Plural possessor? Put your apostrophe after the s:

  • the cats' dinner (more than one cat)
  • the cats' dinners (more than one cat)
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE THING BEING POSSESSED

Where to put the apostrophe is only determined by the possessor. It doesn't matter one jot whether the thing being possessed (in the examples above, dinner or dinners) is singular or plural.
 
 
 
THE RULES ARE COMPLEX, BUT NEVER PUT AN APOSTROPHE IN THE WORD ITSELF

An apostrophe that shows possession never appears inside the word itself.

  • Dicken's novel
  • (the word is "Dickens")
  • The ladie's coats
  • (the word is "ladies")
  • the cat's dinner
  • (When referring to "cats", this is wrong. Remember, the apostrophe cannot appear inside the word.)
    (For one "cat", this would be correct.)
IT'S HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH POSSESSION

It's is a contraction of it is or it has.

This is a 100% rule. The word it's has nothing to do with possession. The word its (without an apostrophe) is used for possession.

  • I know its name. I saw its nametag.
  • (The word its is used for possession.)
  • I know it's coming soon.
  • (The contraction it's expands to it is or, sometimes, it has.)
  • It was it's maiden voyage.
  • (Remember, it's is NOT used for possession. Do not be fooled by that apostrophe.)
    (This should be its.)
Read more about it's and its.
 
 

See also:

Using apostrophes
The apostrophe error with plurals
Apostrophes in time (temporal) expressions
Apostrophes replace letters
Apostrophes to show the plural of abbreviations
Mother's/Mothers' Day, Father's/Fathers' Day, Veteran's/Veterans' Day, Manager's/Managers' Meeting, Chief Executive's/Chief Executives' Meeting