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Apostrophes: Grammar Rules For Showing Possession

Wondering when a noun should use s, s’, ’s, or es to show possession? Want to know when to use the  apostrophe and when to skip it? Here are some grammar rules (from our proofreaders!) to guide you as you tell ’em whose it is (to show ownership).

Rule 1: To form the possessive of a singular noun that does not end in s or an s sound, add an apostrophe plus s to the noun:

Examples: the doctor’s orders, the writer’s desk, Tammy’s car, my sister’s children, her father-in-law’s house

Rule 2: To form the possessive of a singular noun that does end in s or an s sound, add an apostrophe plus s to the noun:

Examples: Jennifer Lopez’s music, the witness’s report, James’s poetry

One exception to this rule is to add only an apostrophe when adding the apostrophe plus s makes the word difficult to pronounce:

Examples: Sophocles’ plays, Mrs. Rogers’ new car

Rule 3: To form the possessive of a plural noun that ends in s or es, add only an apostrophe to the noun:

Examples: the actors’ roles, the writers’ convention, their doctors’ orders, the beaches’ cleanliness

Rule 4: To form the possessive of a plural noun that does not end in s or es, add an apostrophe plus s to the noun:

Examples: her children’s toys, the women’s dressing room

Rule 5: To indicate separate possession, add whichever possessive sign is appropriate (an apostrophe plus s or an apostrophe alone) to the name of each person:

Examples: Bill’s and Tom’s cars (two separate cars: Bill’s car and Tom’s car), James’s and Olivia’s houses (two separate houses: James’s house and Olivia’s house)

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Rule 6: To indicate joint possession, add the appropriate possessive sign (an apostrophe plus s or an apostrophe alone) to the final name:

Examples: Mary and John’s house (the house belongs to both Mary and John), Edward and Madeleine’s books (the books belong to both Edward and Madeleine)

One exception to this rule occurs if one of the owners is identified by a pronoun (my, his, her, our, their). In this case, make each name and pronoun possessive:

Example: Erica’s and my project (not Erica and my project); Mark’s and our dinner (not Mark and our dinner); John’s, Edgar’s, Lisa’s, and my party (not John, Edgar, Lisa, and my party)

A note about the possessive pronouns: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs, whose. These pronouns never require apostrophes.

Rule 7: To form the possessive of a singular abbreviation, add an apostrophe plus s.

Examples: the FAA’s ruling, the MD’s diagnosis, USA’s stand

Rule 8: To form the possessive of a plural abbreviation, add an s’.

Examples: the PhDs’ dissertations, the RNs’ orders, the CPAs’ convention

A note about apostrophes in contractions: Whenever a word or phrase is shortened by contraction, remember to place an apostrophe at the point where the letters are omitted.

Examples: don’t (do not), can’t (cannot), rock ‘n’ roll (rock and roll), ma’am (madam)

Apostrophe placement in first and last names, abbreviations, and pronouns shouldn’t give you any trouble if you just follow these simple writing rules. But if you’re not sure, Writer’s Relief proofreaders may be able to help. So when Maria parks her car in Tom and Jane’s driveway, which is next to the Petersons’ house and across the street from Edward’s and Alfred’s apartments, you’ll have no trouble at all conveying that information to your reader!

14 Responses to Apostrophes: Grammar Rules For Showing Possession

  1. I’m creating shirts for our group of female cousins. We have an annual convention and my question is: Cousin’s Convention, Cousins’ Convention or Cousins Convention. Help is appreciated!

  2. Hey– I wondered what the order would be for possessive apostrophes when there is another name in parenthesis

    For example: Where is the client’s (Bill) bicycle? or Where is the client (Bill’s) bicycle?

  3. Hi Olivia,

    Dad’s fishing lines. “Dads’ fishing line” would imply multiple dads.

  4. I’m actually struggling with one-

    Dad’s fishing lines, or Dads’ fishing lines?

    (Dad – singular)

  5. Hi Klaus:

    Yes. There would be an apostrophe on both Curley’s and Wife’s in that sentence.

  6. if I’m writing “Curley’s wife’s happiness” does there need to be an apostrophe on both Curley’s and Wife’s?

  7. Hi Pat,

    According to the Gregg Reference Manual, to form the possessive of a plural noun, you would add only an apostrophe. So the answer would be Smiths’ in this case.

    However, it seems like a word is missing. The Smiths’ “what?” was established in 2017? You might want to consider:

    The Smiths’ Cabin
    Established 2017

  8. Please help with text for a sign outside of a cabin. I see so many different versions, it is difficult to know which is correct!

    The Smith’s
    Established 2017

    The Smiths’
    Established 2017

    The Smiths
    Established 2017

    Thank you for any help that you can provide!

  9. Hi T,

    Yes, the word boy’s needs the apostrophe to show possession. Otherwise, it’s the plural and incorrect.

  10. Hello
    IN a sentence such as the teacher preferred the girl’s work to the boys. Do you also need t our an apostrophe in the word boys as in boy’s, if it is at the end of the sentence with no noun after it?

    Regards

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