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Proper Apostrophe Usage Possessives

Updated on June 4, 2010

Apostrophes When The Word Ends in S

If you want to be a professional writer, or if you just take your writing seriously, you will eventually encounter a quirk in English grammar that is often misunderstood.

How to make a word that ends with 's' into a possessive. That is, should a word that ends with s be made into a possessive by adding apostrophe-s, appending an apostrophe behind the existing s, or by inserting an apostrophe before the existing s?

The question is made more confusing by the fact that various waves of American students were taught different rules depending upon when and where they attended elementary school.

Plural Possessives and Names Ending in S

The manual notes that there are some exceptions, as well as the fact, that opinions on this matter can run high, so there is some latitude. As is always the case, knowing what the rules are, is important before one breaks the rules.

The mistake most commonly made with possessives and how to add an apostrophe to a word to make it possesive occurs when dealing with a singular noun that "looks" like a plural, that is, that ends in 's' or 'es'.

Some singlular nouns that end in an s do NOT get the add an apostrophe plus s treatment. These nouns get the add apostrophe only handling. This applies to words that end in s whose singular and plural forms are the same.

In other words, this rule does not mean that all words that end in an s append only an apostrophe. In order to qualify, the plural and singular must be the same.

The examples cited in Rule 7.19:

politics' true meaning

economics' forerunners

The most important part of this rule comes in that it applied to proper names as well. Guess why this part of the rule is so important?

the United States' policy in this are

Grammar Rules Manual

When it comes to English grammar, the bible is The Chicago Manual of Style, a weighty tome published by the University of Chicago in reference manual format. In addition to being a big, expensive, hardback, book, it is written as a reference guide, not as an instructional manual. As a result, its presence is seldom felt outside the world of professional writers and academia, but it carries just as much weight as the oft used AP Style Guide.

Rule 7.17 of The Chicago Manual of Style states that for "most nouns":

The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s and the possessive of plural nouns by adding an apostrophe only.

This is the basic rule that everyone is familiar with.

Joe's coffee

the lion's home

children's books

cats' claws

Depending upon when you were taught how to use an apostrophe, you might be thinking of another exception to the rule and wondering if it applies.

What about pronouns, or more specifically, how do you make possessive it?

Add Apostrophe S to Singular Nouns Ending in S

So, what about those singular nouns that end in an s, but whose plural is not the same as its plural? It doesn't come up often, but when it does, expect Microsoft Grammar checker to get it wrong, and perhaps expect some push back from a less experienced editor.

The word bass can have two meaning. One means a kind of fish (pronounced so it rhymes with grass), the other refers to musical tones or instruments (pronounced like the word base). In the case of the former, the plural is actually basses (good grammar trivia!). Therefore, the plural of bass is formed as such:

a bass's favorite spot

the basses' natural enemies include

It's a little nuance of grammar and copy editing, but if you are going to be serious writer, eventually, you'll need to know.


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      webwriter 8 years ago

      there is indeed a lot to learn about grammar.. nice hub by the way.. =)