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What Is a Possessive Apostrophe?

By now you know when to use an apostrophe, but what is a possessive apostrophe? It’s just what it sounds like: an apostrophe that is used to indicate possession of something. But, as in life, things are not always as they seem. The use of the possessive apostrophe gets complicated because our language is complicated. Let’s start with the simple facts, and work towards an understanding of the more complex aspects of using a possessive apostrophe.

Singular Possessive Apostrophe

When you want to show that someone possesses something, and that someone is singular, all you do is add an ’s.

    The nun’s habit needed to be washed.
    The dog’s bone was missing.
    Dan’s bike broke down.

Simple, right? So what about singular nouns that already end in s like:

    bus
    grass
    Texas
    class

Well, it seems the authorities are split on this one. There are arguments made for adding only an apostrophe after the final s, as well as arguments that ’s should follow the final s.

The argument for adding only an apostrophe says that a simple apostrophe is sleek, unobtrusive, and conveys the meaning appropriately. But some feel that this just doesn’t look or sound right, so they use the addition of ’s. Many prefer to punctuate it as most people would say it. So it appears to be a stylistic choice.

    The bus’s tires were getting worn down.
    Texas’s governor wanted to institute a day for relaxing once a month.

    The glass’ clarity was diminished from years of hard weather.
    The class’ students waited for 10 minutes.

Either format is technically correct, so pick your style and remain consistent. Don’t flop back and forth or your writing will seem unprofessional. And remember that you can always reword the sentence to sound better.

    The tires on the bus were getting worn down.
    The governor of Texas wanted to institute a day for relaxing once a month.

Plural Possessives

The rule on this seems pretty straightforward as well. You simply make the noun plural, and then add an apostrophe before the s.

    car → cars → All of the cars’ tires were going flat.
    plane → planes → Twelve planes’ wings needed to be fixed.

To make things more complicated—because we all love that—we must consider words that end in s when singular, and words that do not become plural by adding an s.

    bus → buses → All 8 buses’ windows were dirty.
    (All 8 buses possess windows.)

    class → classes → The 5th grade classes’ science projects got ruined in the flood.
    (There is more than one 5th grade class, and they all had science projects.)

    boss → bosses → Our three bosses’ expectations were realistic.
    (The three bosses had expectations.)

Some words in English are made plural by changing the spelling of the word, as opposed to simply adding an s.

    child → children
    person → people
    ox → oxen

Now if we are talking about one child who has a toy, we say “the child’s toy.” This is the normal rule that applies. However, what about when we have multiple children who possess something? We simply treat the plural the same as a single noun and add an ’s.

    We took the children’s lunches with us on the field trip.
    The mayor heard the people’s objections to the new law.
    The oxen’s harnesses were beginning to show damage.

As always, keep in mind that you can reword the sentence. Sometimes it just sounds better. For instance, I personally feel that the second sentence above would flow much better if reworded.

    The mayor heard the objections of the people regarding the new law.

A Word About Proper Names

I would be remiss not to mention names that end in s. Here again, there are choices.

    Jones
    James
    Ross

Because grammarians disagree, you can choose. But the first thing you must know is whether you are dealing with a singular or plural name. In other words, are you talking about Mr. Jones, or the Joneses: meaning the whole family?

If you are talking about just Mr. Jones, you could choose either:

    I accidentally brought home Mr. Jones’s sweater.
    I accidentally brought home Mr. Jones’ sweater.

If you are talking about the whole family (the Jones family) you would say:

    I am going to the Joneses’ house.

A Final Word on Choices

Don’t get overly concerned about the number of times that stylistic choices come into play. This is simply a result of our evolving language. As times change, the way people speak begins to change, and grammar often becomes muddled.

I know it can be frustrating not to have a simple and straightforward answer on how to use a possessive apostrophe. But if you look at it another way, it gives you some stylistic freedom. In situations where there is a choice, always use what feels most natural to you, and remain consistent. Consider the flow of how you would say something, and use the rule that most closely matches how you would speak the sentence. You can also refer to style guides, and resources like Magoosh’s Professional Writing lessons.

By doing this you can give your writing your own “voice,” and that is a huge advantage.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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