How to Use the Possessive Apostrophe

When to Use a Possessive Apostrophe

Ever have that moment writing an article, essay, or email and you can't decide whether or not to use just an apostrophe or an apostrophe with an s at the end of that tricky word? Maybe you can't decide because both options just don't feel right? If you've ever been there, or are there right now, then this hub will help you learn just when to use that apostrophe and what you can do at those times when you'd rather skip that pesky possessive sign and move on.

How to Use a Possessive Apostrophe

Don't be like Mr. Smee and misuse that little apostrophe. It might be a small mark on a piece of paper or on a computer screen but when it's misused it can stick out like a sore thumb and distract those who see it from all that other awesome information you're trying to share.

When in doubt, I always pull out my handy Chicago Manual of Style to guide me through those tough times. I personally have the 15th edition but there is now a 16th edition available. It can be a little costly depending on where you go but it is a great investment if you are one of those who, like me, can get a little obsessed over those little confusions and need answers before they can move on and keep writing.

I've used my helpful book here and provided the different rules and examples given in the there since I couldn't say it any better. Just to make it a little easier, I've also tried giving my own version of its advice on how to use a possessive apostrophe.

The General Rule: "The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) by adding an apostrophe only."

Examples:

Puppies' paws

Children's literature


"The general rule covers most proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, in both their singular and plural forms, as well as letters and numbers."

Examples:

Kansas's legislature

Marx's theories

The Martinezes' daughter

1999's heaviest snowstorm


Basically, most possessive singular nouns end with both an apostrophe and an s while plural possessive nouns usually end with just an apostrophe. If you follow this basic rule and just give the singular nouns an apostrophe s and the plural ones just an apostrophe that works but is still going to look a little awkward.

Read on for the exceptions. It gets a little complicated but it's worth the read. For those of you who like to go by purely the general rule, perhaps you'll learn that just because there's an easy way out of this conundrum doesn't mean the tougher route is really all that difficult.

Possessive Apostrophe Uses

1. "When the singular form of a noun ending in s looks like a plural and the plural form is the same as the singular, the possessive of both singular and plural is formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive."

Examples:

politics' true meaning

economics' forerunners

this species' first record (the first record of this species is better)


In other words, when the singular and plural form of a possessive noun look the same, both end with just an apostrophe. When in doubt, use of instead and save yourself the headache.

2. "The same rule applies when the name of a place or an organization is a plural form ending in s, such as the United States, even though the entity is singular."

Example:

the United States' role


So, if when a place or organization ends with an s, just an apostrophe is added at the end.

3. "The possessive is formed without an additional s for a name of two or more syllables that ends in an eez sound."

Example:

Euripides' tragedies


For this one, just remember it's just too easy to add an apostrophe without the s. Then you'll never forget that if it has two or more syllables and ends with "eez" that you just put an apostrophe at the end.

4. "To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s."

Example:

Descartes' three dreams


These last three, including this rule, do not seem as commonly used but it is still important to know. If the s isn't pronounced, just remember not to add another one.

5. "For...sake expressions traditionally omit the s when the noun ends in an s or an s sound."

Example:

For goodness' sake.


For this one, the s is pronounced but there's still no need to add another one when it's for the noun's sake.

6. "To avoid confusion, lowercase letters and abbreviations with two or more interior periods with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s."

Example:

Ph.D.'s


It might seem tempting to that out that little period and add the old apostrophe s but since it's abbreviating something it only makes sense to keep that little dot and go on and add that apostrophe s anyways.

The Best Advice For Possessive Apostrophes

The best advice to come away with after reading the Chicago Manual of Style or this hub is that, when in doubt, it is better to avoid using the apostrophe instead of just writing whatever. An apostrophe is a small symbol and barely sticks out at first glance but it can throw a reader off and lose their focus, which a writer never wants.

For more clarification, view the video below or get your own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style for any other questions on punctuation.

© 2012 LisaKoski

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