Possessive Nouns

by Craig Shrives

What Are Possessive Nouns? (with Examples)

A possessive noun is a noun indicating ownership (or possession) by ending 's or just an apostrophe.
possessive nouns

Examples of Possessive Nouns

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 accept a broad scope for 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
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.
  • 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 (called "attributable nouns"). 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
Read more about apostrophes in "temporal expressions".

Are You Good at Possessive Apostrophes?

Here's a quick test.
Getting ready...
Here are three noteworthy points related to possessive nouns.

(Point 1) Get your apostrophe placement right by spotting the possessor.

Looking at the above table showing the rules for placing apostrophes, you'd think that the rules were complicated. They're not. Here's a simple rule that works for every type of noun:

Simple Rule for Apostrophe Placement

Everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor (i.e., the possessive noun).

(That's it. It works for every type noun.)
possessive nouns apostrophe placement rules
Still confused? Here is a short video summarizing this point:

(Point 2) Get your apostrophe placement right by understanding the history of possessive nouns.

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 then replaced any missing letters from the original "-es" with an apostrophe. (NB: Let's not forget that the main function of apostrophes is 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. Read more about the rules for placing apostrophes.

(Point 3) Forming the possessive form surnames is no different to any other noun.

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.)

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See Also

What is the possessive case? More about creating possessive nouns with apostrophes What are absolute possessive pronouns? What are possessive adjectives? What are possessive pronouns? What is the genitive case? Glossary of grammatical terms

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