Apostrophe - English Language Usage - Possessive Apostrophe - General Principles For The Possessive Apostrophe

General Principles For The Possessive Apostrophe

Summary of rules for most situations
  • Possessive personal pronouns, serving as either noun-equivalents or adjective-equivalents, do not use an apostrophe, even when they end in s. The complete list of those ending in the letter s or the corresponding sound /s/ or /z/ but not taking an apostrophe is ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, and whose.
  • Other pronouns, singular nouns not ending in s, and plural nouns not ending in s all take 's in the possessive: e.g., someone's, a cat's toys, women's.
  • Plural nouns already ending in s take only an apostrophe after the pre-existing s when the possessive is formed: e.g., three cats' toys.
Basic rule (singular nouns)

For most singular nouns the ending 's is added; e.g., the cat's whiskers.

  • If a singular noun ends with an s-sound (spelt with -s, -se, for example), practice varies as to whether to add 's or the apostrophe alone. A widely accepted practice is to follow whichever spoken form is judged better: the boss's shoes, Mrs Jones' hat (or Mrs Jones's hat, if that spoken form is preferred). In many cases, both spoken and written forms differ between writers. (See details below.)

Basic rule (plural nouns)

When the noun is a normal plural, with an added s, no extra s is added in the possessive; so the neighbours' garden (where there is more than one neighbour) is correct rather than the neighbours's garden.

  • If the plural is not one that is formed by adding s, an s is added for the possessive, after the apostrophe: children's hats, women's hairdresser, some people's eyes (but compare some peoples' recent emergence into nationhood, where peoples is meant as the plural of the singular people). These principles are universally accepted.
  • A few English nouns have plurals that are not spelled with a final s but end in an /s/ or a /z/ sound: mice (plural of mouse, and for compounds like dormouse, titmouse), dice (when used as the plural of die), pence (a plural of penny, with compounds like sixpence that now tend to be taken as singulars). In the absence of specific exceptional treatment in style guides, the possessives of these plurals are formed by adding an apostrophe and an s in the standard way: seven titmice's tails were found, the dice's last fall was a seven, his few pence's value was not enough to buy bread. These would often be rephrased, where possible: the last fall of the dice was a seven.
Basic rule (compound nouns)

Compound nouns have their singular possessives formed with an apostrophe and an added s, in accordance with the rules given above: the Attorney-General's husband; the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports' prerogative; this Minister for Justice's intervention; her father-in-law's new wife.

  • In such examples, the plurals are formed with an s that does not occur at the end: e.g., attorneys-general. A problem therefore arises with the possessive plurals of these compounds. Sources that rule on the matter appear to favour the following forms, in which there is both an s added to form the plural, and a separate s added for the possessive: the attorneys-general's husbands; successive Ministers for Justice's interventions; their fathers-in-law's new wives. Because these constructions stretch the resources of punctuation beyond comfort, in practice they are normally reworded: interventions by successive Ministers for Justice.
Joint and separate possession

A distinction is made between joint possession (Jason and Sue's e-mails: the e-mails of both Jason and Sue), and separate possession (Jason's and Sue's e-mails: both the e-mails of Jason and the e-mails of Sue). Style guides differ only in how much detail they provide concerning these. Their consensus is that if possession is joint, only the last possessor has possessive inflection; in separate possession all the possessors have possessive inflection. If, however, any of the possessors is indicated by a pronoun, then for both joint and separate possession all of the possessors have possessive inflection (his and her e-mails; his, her, and Anthea's e-mails; Jason's and her e-mails; His and Sue's e-mails; His and Sue's wedding; His and Sue's weddings).

Note that in cases of joint possession, the above rule does not distinguish between a situation in which only one or more jointly possessed items perform a grammatical role and a situation in which both one or more such items and a non-possessing entity independently perform that role. Although verb number suffices in some cases ("Jason and Sue's dog has porphyria") and context suffices in others ("Jason and Sue's e-mails rarely exceed 200 characters in length"), number and grammatical position often prevent a resolution of ambiguity:

  • Where multiple items are possessed and context is not dispositive, a rule forbidding distribution of the possessive merely shifts ambiguity: suppose that Jason and Sue had one or more children who died in a car crash and that none of Jason's children by anyone other than Sue were killed. Under a rule forbidding distribution of the joint possessive, writing "Jason and Sue's children died in the crash" eliminates the implication that Jason lost children of whom Sue was not the mother, but it introduces ambiguity as to whether Jason himself was killed.
  • Moreover, if only one item is possessed, the rule against distribution of the joint possessive introduces ambiguity (unless the context happens to resolve it): read in light of a rule requiring distribution, the sentence "Jason and Sue's dog died after being hit by a bus" makes clear that the dog belonged to Sue alone and that Jason survived or was not involved, whereas a rule prohibiting distribution forces ambiguity as to both whether Jason (co-)owned the dog and whether he was killed.
With other punctuation; compounds with pronouns

If the word or compound includes, or even ends with, a punctuation mark, an apostrophe and an s are still added in the usual way: "Westward Ho!'s railway station;" Awaye!'s Paulette Whitten recorded Bob Wilson's story; Washington, D.C.'s museums, assuming that the prevailing style requires full stops in D.C.

  • If the word or compound already includes a possessive apostrophe, a double possessive results: Tom's sisters' careers; the head of marketing's husband's preference; the master of foxhounds' best dog's death. Some style guides, while allowing that these constructions are possible, advise rephrasing: the preference of the head of marketing's husband. If an original apostrophe, or apostrophe with s, occurs at the end, it is left by itself to do double duty: Our employees are better paid than McDonald's employees; Standard & Poor's indexes are widely used; the 5uu's first album (the fixed forms of McDonald's and Standard & Poor's already include possessive apostrophes; 5uu's already has a non-possessive apostrophe before its final s). For similar cases involving geographical names, see below.
  • By extended application of the principles stated above, the possessives of all phrases whose wording is fixed are formed in the same way:
    • "Us and Them"'s inclusion on the album The Dark Side of the Moon
    • You Am I's latest CD
    • The 69'ers' drummer, Tom Callaghan (only the second apostrophe is possessive)
    • His 'n' Hers' first track is called "Joyriders".
    • Was She's success greater, or King Solomon's Mines's?
For complications with foreign phrases and titles, see below.
Time, money, and similar

An apostrophe is used in time and money references, among others, in constructions such as one hour's respite, two weeks' holiday, a dollar's worth, five pounds' worth, one mile's drive from here. This is like an ordinary possessive use. For example, one hour's respite means a respite of one hour (exactly as the cat's whiskers means the whiskers of the cat). Exceptions are accounted for in the same way: three months pregnant (in modern usage, we do not say pregnant of three months, nor one month(')s pregnant).

Possessive pronouns and adjectives

No apostrophe is used in the following possessive pronouns and adjectives: yours, his, hers, ours, its, theirs, and whose.

The possessive of it was originally it's, and many people continue to write it this way, though the apostrophe was dropped in the early 1800s and authorities are now unanimous that it's can be only a contraction of it is or it has. For example, US President Thomas Jefferson used it's as a possessive in his instructions dated 20 June 1803 to Lewis for his preparations for his great expedition.

All other possessive pronouns ending in s do take an apostrophe: one's; everyone's; somebody's, nobody else's, etc. With plural forms, the apostrophe follows the s, as with nouns: the others' husbands (but compare They all looked at each other's husbands, in which both each and other are singular).

Importance for disambiguation

Each of these four phrases (listed in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct) has a distinct meaning:

  • My sister's friend's investments (the investments belonging to a friend of my sister)
  • My sister's friends' investments (the investments belonging to several friends of my sister)
  • My sisters' friend's investments (the investments belonging to a friend of several of my sisters)
  • My sisters' friends' investments (the investments belonging to several friends of several of my sisters)

Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with:

  • Those things over there are my husband's. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands'. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands. (I'm married to those men over there.)

Read more about this topic:  Apostrophe, English Language Usage, Possessive Apostrophe

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