Apostrophe Placement Rules

by Craig Shrives
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Apostrophe Placement Rules

You can use an apostrophe and the letter s to show possession. This page covers the rules governing the placement of the apostrophe.
apostrophe placement rules

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Where Do You Place the Apostrophe?

When using an apostrophe for possession, the first thing to think about is whether the possessor is singular or plural. This is important because it determines where the apostrophe is placed. Here are some examples with the possessors highlighted:
  • The seagull's wings. correct tick
  • (With one seagull, the apostrophe is placed before the s. In other words, you have to add 's.)
  • The seagulls' wings. correct tick
  • (With two or more seagulls, the apostrophe is placed after the s; i.e., add just '. (Note: The s will already be there in a plural word that ends s.)

With a Singular Possessor, Place the Apostrophe before the S

When the possessor is singular, add 's.

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

With a Plural Possessor, Place the Apostrophe after the S

When the possessor 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

An Exception (Plural Nouns Not Ending S)

For plural words not ending s (e.g., men, people, children), add 's(like they were singular). For example:
  • Zeus does not bring all men's plans to fulfilment. correct tick (Homer, 800-700 BC)
  • All television is children's television. correct tick (Richard P. Adler)

Another Exception (Singular Nouns Ending S)

For singular words ending s (e.g., Wales, Wells, Jesus), you have a choice. You can add ' or 's. The general rule is write it how you would pronounce it. For example:
  • Jones's briefing was excellent. correct tick
  • (If you would say Jonesiz briefing, use Jones's.)
  • Jones' briefing was excellent. correct tick
  • (If you would say Jones briefing, use Jones'.)

Another Exception (The Possessive Form of Compound Nouns)

With compound nouns (e.g., father-in-law), add 's to the end. It does not matter is the compound noun is singular or plural. For example:
  • Her sister-in-law's motive was financial. correct tick
  • (This is the motive of one sister-in-law.)
  • Her sisters-in-law's motive was financial. correct tick
  • (This is the motive of two or more sisters-in-law.)
Read more about the plurals of compound nouns.

A Quirk (Apostrophes with Joint and Individual Ownership)

With joint ownership, make the last word in the series possessive. With individual ownership, make both parts possessive (or all parts if there are more than two). For example:
  • Jack and Simon's cars correct tick
  • (With joint ownership, only the last part is possessive.)

  • Jack's and Simon's cars correct tick
  • (With individual ownership, both parts are possessive.)
    (Note: It will be assumed that Jack has one car and Simon has one car. If this is not the case, then another construction is required. "Jack's cars and Simon's cars" is one option.)

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
  • man
  • men
  • Moses
(Step 2). Add es. For example:
  • cates
  • catses
  • manes
  • menes
  • Moseses
(Step 3). Replace the e with '. For example:
  • cat's
  • cats's
  • man's
  • men'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
  • man's correct tick
  • men's correct tick
  • Moses' correct tick
This works for everything! There are no exceptions. Read more about using apostrophes.

It's Only about the Number of Possessors

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.
  • hamster's toy correct tick
  • hamsters' toy correct tick
  • hamster's toys correct tick
  • hamsters' toys correct tick
In these examples, only the number of hamsters is relevant. The number of toys is irrelevant.

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See Also

Using apostrophes Apostrophes for possession 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)