Apostrophe To Show Ownership

by Craig Shrives
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Using an Apostrophe to Show Ownership

An apostrophe and the letter s can be used to show ownership.
apostrophe to show ownership

The Rules for Apostrophe Placement

When using an apostrophe for ownership, the first thing to consider is whether there is one owner (a singular owner) or more than one owner (a plural owner). This determines the position of the apostrophe. Here are some examples with the owners highlighted:
  • The boy's den. correct tick
  • (With one boy, the apostrophe is placed before the s. In other words, you have to add 's.)
  • The boys' den. correct tick
  • (With more than one boy, the apostrophe is placed after the s. In other words, add just ' because the s will already be there.)

With a Singular Owner, the Apostrophe Is Placed before the S

When the owner is singular, add 's.

For example:
  • Wagner's music is better than it sounds. correct tick (Author Mark Twain)
  • A friend's eye is a good mirror. (Proverb) correct tick

With a Plural Owner, the Apostrophe Is Placed after the S

When the owner is plural, add ' after the s. For example:
  • The dogs' dinner smells better than ours. correct tick
  • The ladies' mobile phones were confiscated until after the show. correct tick

Plural Nouns Not Ending S (Exception 1)

For plural words that do not end s (e.g., "children," "people," "women"), add 's (as though they were singular). For example:
  • Zeus does not bring all men's plans to fulfilment. correct tick (Greek author Homer)
  • All television is children's television. correct tick (Author Richard P. Adler)

Singular Nouns Ending S (Exception 2)

For singular words that end s (e.g., "Dickens," "series," "Moses"), add ' or 's. (You have a choice.) For example:
  • Wells's report was shockingly bad. correct tick
  • Wells' report was shockingly bad. correct tick
Useful guideline: Write the version that reflects how you (yes, you personally) would say it. If you would say "Wellsiz report," then use Wells's. If you would say "Wells report," use Wells'.

Compound Nouns (Exception 3)

For compound nouns (e.g., "brother-in-law"), add 's to the end regardless of whether it is singular or plural. For example:
  • My brother-in-law's help was essential. correct tick
  • (This is help from one brother-in-law.)
  • My brothers-in-law's help was essential. correct tick
  • (This is help from brothers-in-law, i.e., more than one brother-in-law.)
Read more about forming the plurals of compound nouns.

Apostrophes with Joint and Individual Ownership (A Quirk)

For joint ownership, make just the last word in the series possessive. For individual ownership, make all parts possessive. For example:
  • Peter and Paul's factories correct tick
  • (For joint ownership, only the last part is possessive.)

  • Peter's and Paul's factories correct tick
  • (For individual ownership, all parts are possessive.)
    (Without context, it will be assumed that Peter has one factory and Paul has one factory. Another construction is required if this is not the case: "Peter's factories and Paul's factories" is one option.)

More about Apostrophes for Ownership

It's Not about the Thing Being Owned

The position of the apostrophe is determined only by the number of the owner. It doesn't matter whether the thing being owned is singular or plural.
  • dog's dinner correct tick
  • dogs' dinner correct tick
  • dog's dinners correct tick
  • dogs' dinners correct tick
In these examples, only the number of dogs is relevant. The number of dinners is irrelevant.

The Term "Ownership" Is Applied Very Loosely

Sometimes, the idea of ownership is very loosely applied. For example:
  • Picasso's painting correct tick
  • (These are paintings by Picasso.)
  • Men's changing rooms correct tick
  • (These are changing rooms for men.)
  • Two years' insurance correct tick
  • (This means insurance of two years. How can two years own insurance? Remember, the idea of ownership is often very loosely applied.)
Read about the possessive case for more about the function of the apostrophe for ownership.

The Word "It's" Has Nothing To Do with Ownership

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

The word it's has nothing to do with ownership. (NB: The word its (without an apostrophe) is used for ownership.)
  • I saw its tail. correct tick
  • (The word its is used for ownership.)
  • I know it's true. correct tick
  • (The contraction it's can always be expanded to it is or it has.)
Read more about it's and its.

The History of the Apostrophe for Ownership

The principal function of an apostrophe is to replace a missing letter (e.g., "don't," "isn't"). This is related to why apostrophes are used for ownership.

In old English, ownership was shown by adding es to the possessor regardless of whether the possessor was singular or plural. For example:
  • cates dinner (for one cat)
  • catses dinner (for several cats)
  • manes dinner (for one man)
  • menes dinner (for several men)
  • Moseses dinner (for Moses)
Over time, the "e" was replaced by an apostrophe to reflect how these words were spoken. If the new ending did not sound right (typically because of an -s's ending, then the second s was removed.

This process still works for everything. There are no exceptions.

(Step 1). Identify the possessor. For example:
  • cat
  • cats
  • woman
  • women
  • Moses
(Step 2). Add es. For example:
  • cates
  • catses
  • womanes
  • womenes
  • Moseses
(Step 3). Replace the e with '. For example:
  • cat's
  • cats's
  • woman's
  • women's
  • Moses's
(Step 4). If left with s's (which sounds awkward), simply remove the last s.
  • cat's correct tick
  • cats' correct tick
  • woman's correct tick
  • women's correct tick
  • Moses' correct tick
This works for everything! There are no exceptions. Read more about using apostrophes.

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See Also

Using apostrophes Apostrophes for possession Apostrophe placement rules Apostrophe after s Apostrophe after z Apostrophe before s Apostrophes for awkward plurals Apostrophes after acronyms and abbreviations Apostrophes in contractions Apostrophes in expressions like 2 years' pay and a day's notice Apostrophes used incorrectly for plurals Apostrophe exercises Apostrophes in names Apostrophe misuse Apostrophes in contractions Using brackets parentheses Using colons Using commas Using dashes Using hyphens Using quotation marks Using semicolons "Apostrophes for possession" game (Tetris-style game) "Apostrophes in time expressions" game (Tetris-style game)