The Possessive Apostrophe

by Craig Shrives

Possessive Apostrophes

An apostrophe and the letter "s" can be added to a noun to make the noun possessive. (NB: If the noun already ends in an "s" (e.g., dogs, Jesus), just add an apostrophe. For example:
  • The hay of the horse = The horse's hay
  • (The noun is "horse." It doesn't end "s," so make it possessive by adding 's.)
  • The hay of the horses = The horses' hay
  • (The noun is "horses." It does end "s," so make it possessive by adding just '. In other words, do not use an "s" if the word already ends with "s.")
In these two examples, the words "horse" and "horses" are the possessors. With possessive endings, horse's and horses' have become possessive nouns. The apostrophes in possessive nouns are called "possessive apostrophes."

Apostrophe Placement - A Simple Rule for Everything

This infographic summarizes apostrophe placement with possessive nouns:

possessive apostrophe placement

Placement of Possessive Apostrophes

When thinking about the placement of possessive apostrophes, writers often ask does the apostrophe go before the "s" or after the "s"? But, that's the wrong question. Writers should ask themselves whether the word already ends with "s." If it doesn't, they need one (add 's). If it does, they don't (add just '). Here's the quick guide:

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Using Apostrophes for Possession

When using an apostrophe to show possession, the first thing to check is whether the possessor (i.e., the noun that will become a possessive noun) already ends with "s." For example, if the word is singular, then it will probably not end with "s" (e.g, "dog"), but it might (e.g., "Moses"). If the word is plural, then it will probably end "s" (e.g, "dogs"), but it might not (e.g., "men"). This is important because it determines whether you add just ' or 's.

This simple process works for every kind of noun:
  • Find the possessor.
  • If the possessor ends with "s," add just '.
  • If the possessor doesn't end with "s," add 's.
This idea might help: You need an "s" only for pronunciation. If there already is one, don't add another one.

Look at these examples (the possessors are shown in bold):
  • The kennel of the dog
  • (The possessor is "dog." As it doesn't end "s," add 's.)
  • The dog's kennel
  • The kennel of the dogs
  • (The possessor is "dogs." As it already ends "s," add just '.)
  • The dogs' kennel
  • The attitude of the men
  • (The possessor is "men." As it doesn't end "s," add 's.)
  • The men's attitude
  • With the leadership of Moses
  • (The possessor is "Moses." As it already ends "s," add just '.)
  • With Moses' leadership
Remember that everything before the "s" is the possessor. A possessive apostrophe never appears inside the possessor of a possessive noun...ever.

More Examples of Apostrophe Placement for Possessive Nouns

Singular Possessor Not Ending "S"

With one possessor (provided it doesn't end in an "s"), add '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)
Here are some real-life examples:
  • Wagner's music is better than it sounds. (Author Mark Twain)
  • A foolish woman knows a foolish man's faults. (Proverb)
  • A friend's eye is a good mirror. (Proverb)
  • A guest should be blind in another man's house. (Proverb)

Plural Possessor Ending "S"

With a plural possessor (provided it ends "s"), add '. For example:
  • The horses' hay is damp.
  • (hay belonging to several horses)
  • The players' privileges have been removed.
  • (privileges belonging to all players, i.e., more than one)
  • The fairies' wings glistened in the moonlight.
  • (wings belonging to some fairies, i.e., more than one)
Here is a real-life example:
  • I specifically did not read other First Ladies' books, because I didn't want to be influenced by how they defined the role. (First Lady Michelle Obama)

Plural Possessor Not Ending "S"

With a plural possessor that doesn't end "s," add 's. For example:
  • He is the people's poet.
  • The women's toilets are out of bounds.
  • My watch was stolen from the men's changing room.
Here are some real-life examples:
  • All television is children's television. (Author Richard P. Adler)
  • Zeus does not bring all men's plans to fulfilment. (Greek author Homer)

Singular Possessor Ending "S"

With a singular possessor that ends "s" (e.g., Charles, Wales, Paris, Dickens), you have a choice. You can add just ' or 's. It depends how you (yes, you personally) pronounce it. For example:
  • It is Charles' birthday.
  • It is Charles's birthday.
  • (These are both correct. You should use the version that matches how you pronounce it. In other words, add 's if you pronounce it "Charlesiz birthday," but add just ' if you pronounce it "Charles birthday".)
Here is another example:
  • I have not seen Wales' new stadium.
  • I have not seen Wales's new stadium.
  • (Both are acceptable.)
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")
    (Note that, as a company name, "IT Solutions" is singular.)
  • IT Solutions's conference
  • (for those who pronounce it "IT Solutionsiz conference")

A Quirk: Compound Nouns

Here's something to look out for. It doesn't affect the apostrophe-replacement rule. Some compound nouns (e.g., "sister-in-law") form their plurals by adding "s" 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). For example:
Singular Possessive NounPlural Possessive Noun
  • 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

    Here's something else to look out for. Joint ownership is shown by making the last word in the series possessive. Individual ownership is shown by making both (or all) parts possessive. For 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.)
    Here is another example:
    • India and Pakistan's problems
    • (common to both)
    • India's and Pakistan's problems
    • (separate problems)

    It's Not About the Thing Being Possessed

    Choosing ' or 's is determined only by the possessor. It doesn't matter one jot whether the thing being possessed is singular or plural. For example:
    • the dog's dinner (one dog, one dinner)
    • the dogs' dinner (several dogs, one dinner)
    • the dog's dinners (one dog, several dinners)
    • the dogs' dinner (several dogs, several dinners)

    Do Not Put an Apostrophe in the Word Itself

    An apostrophe that shows possession never appears inside the possessive noun.
    • Dicken's novel
    • (the possessive noun is "Dickens")
    • The ladie's coats
    • (the possessive noun is "ladies")
    Now, look at this example:
    • the dinner of the cats = the cat's dinner
    • (When referring to "cats," this is wrong. Remember that the apostrophe cannot appear inside the possessive noun. For one "cat", this would be correct.)

    Do Not Use It's for 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. Rather oddly (given what we've covered), the word its (without an apostrophe) is used for possession.
    • I know its name. It's written on its collar.
    • (The word its is used for possession. The contraction it's expands to "it is" or, sometimes, "it has.")
    • It's completed it's maiden voyage.
    • (Remember that it's is NOT used for possession. Do not be fooled by that apostrophe.)
    Read more about it's and its.
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

    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 How do you write master's degree and bachelor's degree?