Possessive Apostrophe

by Craig Shrives

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What Is a Possessive Apostrophe?

A possessive apostrophe is an apostrophe used in a noun to show that the noun owns something (e.g., woman's hat). More specifically, a possessive apostrophe and the letter s are added to a noun to make the noun possessive. For example:
  • Simon's car
  • the dog's bone
  • the fairies' village
  • (When the noun already ends -s (like "fairies"), only an apostrophe is added.)
Here are the rules for placing a possessive apostrophe:
  • If the noun ends -s (e.g., dogs, Jesus), add just ' (an apostrophe). For example:
    • the hay of the horses = the horses' hay
    • (The noun is "horses." It ends -s, so make it possessive by adding just '. In other words, do not use an s if the word already ends s.)
  • If the noun doesn't end -s (e.g., dog, Simon), add 's.
    • 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.)
In these two examples, the words "horse" and "horses" are the possessors. As they now have possessive endings, horse's and horses' have become possessive nouns. The apostrophe in a possessive noun is called a "possessive apostrophe."

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 whether the apostrophe goes before the s or after the s. However, that's the wrong question. Writers should ask themselves whether the word already ends -s. If it doesn't, they need one (i.e., add 's). If it does, they don't need one (add just ').

Here's some more guidance on placing possessive apostrophes and a top tip for checking you've done it correctly:

Quick Guide

You need an s for pronunciation. So, if there's already an s, add just '. If there's no s, add 's.

Once you've added your possessive ending, do a quick check. Everything to the left of the apostrophe is the possessor. For example:
  • horse's hay (the possessor is "horse")
  • horses' hay (the possessor is "horses")
  • children's toys (the possessor is "children")
  • Orson Wells' book (the possessor is "Orson Wells")

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More about Using Apostrophes for Possession

Do not get tied up with thinking about whether the word is singular or plural. 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 -s. If the word is singular, then it will probably not end -s, 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"). Remember that it is the last letter that determines whether you add just ' or 's.

Let's do some examples using this process:
  • Find the possessor.
  • If the possessor ends -s, add just '.
  • If the possessor doesn't end -s, add 's.
Example 1:
  • The kennel of the dog
  • (The possessor is "dog." As it doesn't end -s, add 's.)
  • The dog's kennel
Example 2:
  • The kennel of the dogs
  • (The possessor is "dogs." As it already ends -s, add just '.)
  • The dogs' kennel
Example 3:
  • The attitude of the men
  • (The possessor is "men." As it doesn't end -s, add 's.)
  • The men's attitude
Example 4:
  • With the leadership of Moses
  • (The possessor is "Moses." As it already ends -s, add just '.)
  • With Moses' leadership
Remember that everything before the apostrophe 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 -s), add 's.

For example:
  • Take the girl's hand and place it on the cushion.
  • (This is the hand belonging to one girl.)
  • I had to remove Peter's label and replace it.
  • (This is a 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.
  • (This is hay belonging to several horses.)
  • The players' privileges have been removed.
  • (This is privileges belonging to all players, i.e., more than one.)
  • The fairies' wings glistened in the moonlight.
  • (This is the 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
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "Dr Evans report.")
  • Dr. Evans's report
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "Dr Evansiz report.")
  • Miss Williams' victory
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "Miss Williams victory.")
  • Miss Williams's victory
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "Miss Williamsiz victory")
  • IT Solutions' conference
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "IT Solutions conference.")
    (Note that, as a company name, "IT Solutions" is singular.)
  • IT Solutions's conference
  • (This is correct for those who pronounce it "IT Solutionsiz conference.")
  • St. James' or St. James's
  • (St. James's or St. James' underground station in London has both of these signs — one at each entrance. It's not a great example of consistency, but it makes the point that both versions are acceptable.)

A Quirk with Compound Nouns

Here's something to look out for. 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" would be one option.)

    Here is another example:
    • India and Pakistan's problems
    • (This means problems that are common to both.)
    • India's and Pakistan's problems
    • (This means they are separate problems.)

    It's Not About the Thing Being Possessed

    Choosing ' or 's is determined only by the possessor. It doesn't matter 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' dinners (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
    • (This is wrong. The word is "Dickens." The apostrophe never appears inside the word being made possessive.)
    • The ladie's coats
    • (This is wrong. The word is "laides." The apostrophe never appears inside the word being made possessive.)
    Now, look at this example:
    • the dinner of the cats = the cat's dinner
    • (As we're referring to "cats," this must be wrong. Remember that the apostrophe never appear inside the word itself. If we were talking about 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.
    • (The first it's is correct. It expands to "it has." The second it's is wrong. Remember that it's is NOT used for possession. Do not be fooled by that apostrophe.)
    Read more about it's and its.

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    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? "Apostrophes for possession" game (Tetris-style game) "Apostrophes in time expressions" game (Tetris-style game)

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