Punctuation Point: Possessing the Apostrophe

by Erin Brenner on May 27, 2010

© Judy Horacek

The apostrophe is one of those pieces of punctuation that get a lot of people in trouble. It looks like a comma that hangs in the air rather than on the line and causes writers no end of confusion.

The apostrophe has three main uses:

  • It shows possession for a noun.
  • It shows the omission of some letters in a word.
  • It shows plurality of single letters, single numbers, and acronyms.

Today, we’ll go over the basics of the first rule: creating possessive nouns. We humans love to collect things (just ask George Carlin). We pick stuff up wherever we go, and we want the world to know what belongs to us — especially when we write about it. Possessive nouns and pronouns show that ownership. Positioned correctly, that hanging comma — the apostrophe — shows you who owns what.

That’s Our Stuff

Let’s start with the easy bit: plural nouns. If the plural noun ends in an s, add an apostrophe:

boxes’ labels
The Brenners’ house

If the plural noun does NOT end in s (an irregular noun), you add apostrophe s:

children’s toy
women’s shoes
men’s coat

So far, so good. Now let’s look at singular nouns.

That’s My Stuff

Whether you use just an apostrophe or an apostrophe s to make a singular noun possessive depends largely on your style guide. Most singular nouns are made possessive with an apostrophe s (this is actually the base of the apostrophe rule and why most lessons start there):

Sean’s book

Some usage books and style guides will tell you to use an apostrophe s for all singular nouns, whether they end in s or not. Garner and Chicago use this rule:

James’s toy
The bus’s wheels

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Biblical and Classical names that end with a /zes/ or /eez/ sound get just an apostrophe:

Jesus’ way
Moses’ commandments
Aristophanes’ plays

Plural nouns that have a singular meaning get just an apostrophe:

politics’ true meaning
economics’ forerunners
the United States’ policy on terrorism

A sibilant possessive (the noun ends in an /es/ sound) before the word sake gets just an apostrophe:

appearance’ sake
goodness’ sake
conscience’ sake

AP is slightly different. Use apostrophe s for singular nouns and follow the same “use just an apostrophe” exceptions that Garner and Chicago outline. But AP wants you to follow two more exceptions. If you have a proper noun that ends in s or a singular noun that ends in s and is followed by a word that begins with s, you add just an apostrophe:

James’ toy
hostess’ seat

And if you’re following a completely different style guide, your best bet is to look up its rule.

Pronouns Are Different

If the noun is a personal pronoun, you don’t need to worry about the apostrophe at all, as English offers a complete set of possessive pronouns:

my/mine
your/yours
his, her/hers, its
our/ours
your/yours
their/theirs

Writers often get confused with its. If you see it’s, you’re dealing with a contraction: it is. If you see its, you’re dealing with a possessive pronoun.

You Mean There’s More?

As you start to pay attention to the apostrophe, you’ll see other situations that make you pause: compound words, joint possession, quasi-possessives, and more. I’ll cover these rules (and the other two uses) in a separate post. Until then, if you have a specific example you’d like help with, send it to me and I’ll help you out.

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