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Obsessed with Possessives
2008, Q4 (January 28, 2009)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Membership Manager

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We see it everywhere: our schools, our places of business, even in notes stuck on our refrigerator. Yes, my friends, I’m talking about apostrophe abuse. The Obama administration, faced with two wars and an economy teetering on the edge of disaster, is unlikely to make this a priority. So it’s our duty as professional communicators to stamp it out.

My elementary school teacher made it sound easy. “To make a word a possessive, add an ’s, unless the word is a plural ending in s, and then, just add an apostrophe.” Ah, life was simpler in elementary school. True, many atrocities (such as Grammar Girl’s report of a menu advertising Ladie’s Night) could be avoided if people applied that straightforward rule. Yet there are myriad exceptions, and even the U.S. Supreme Court can’t agree on them (more on that later).


Possessive pronouns don’t use apostrophes: hers, his, its, ours, theirs, whose, yours. Most of us wouldn’t have a problem with this rule if it weren’t for the contractions it’s (it is, it has) and who’s (who is, who has). The sentence, Who’s book is this? doesn’t look wrong to me, but of course, it is. It should read, Whose book is this?

Personal possessive pronouns are often called absolute possessives, because they can occur with no noun following them. For example, a sentence could read It’s her book, or The book is hers. Absolute possessives are sometimes used mistakenly in conjunction with other possessives. For example, She worried about hers and his safety, should read, She worried about her and his safety. A better choice, though, would be to recast the sentence: She worried about her safety and his, or She worried about his safety, and her own.

Singular Words Ending in S

If a singular word ends in s, is it correct to add an s after the apostrophe in the possessive form? That depends on who you ask. It's a matter of style, not grammar. As a technical writer, however, I consider it a usability issue. When people read, they hear the words in their head. So where the style guides disagree, I use pronunciation as the ultimate arbiter.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, if an s at the end of a singular word is pronounced, the possessive is formed by adding ’s. The same is true for words ending in x or z: boss’s office, Alex’s wallet. However, if the ’s would be awkward, avoid the possessive and use of instead: the governor of Texas, the history of jazz. If the s, x, or z is not pronounced, the s after the apostrophe may be omitted: Illinois’ capital, Margaux’ necklace. Follow this practice only if you’re certain of the pronunciation.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage recommends omitting the s after the apostrophe with names ending in an iz sound, as in Beau Bridges’ brother.

The Associated Press Stylebook omits the s after the apostrophe altogether in singular words ending in s. Since newspapers are pressed for space, I suppose they can be forgiven (although I'm not sure I'll be forgiven for that pun). But unless you’re required to follow AP, I recommend including the s for consistency with pronunciation.
...If an s at the end of a singular word is pronounced, the possessive is formed by adding ’s.

Ancient Names

Ancient names can be troublesome, in part because style guides also disagree here. According to Fowler’s, ancient names ending in s form the possessive with an apostrophe alone: Achilles’ heel, Moses’ journey. However, according to Chicago, while names ending in an eez sound receive only an apostrophe, others use ’s: Aristophanes’ plays, Zeus’s wife. When in doubt, or when both ways look wrong, Chicago recommends using of, as in son of Isis or teachings of Jesus.

Multiple Possessors

Is it Joe and Renalda’s fishing poles, or Joe’s and Renalda’s fishing poles? That depends. Are the fishing poles joint property, or do Joe and Renalda each have their own pole? Placing an ’s only at the end of the group of names denotes joint ownership. Placing an ’s at the end of each individual name denotes individual ownership.

Attributive Forms

The distinction between an attributive form and a possessive is often unclear. A users’ manual isn’t a manual belonging to users; it’s a manual for users. Nevertheless, Chicago recommends retaining the apostrophe except in the case of proper names: citizens’ advocate, Panthers game, Boys and Girls Clubs of America.


Analogous to possessives, genitives that denote value or time use an apostrophe, as in five dollars’ worth or two weeks’ notice. The apostrophe in this case stands in for the word of.

Double Possessives

In this idiom, also called a double genitive, a possessive noun or pronoun is used after of, to denote one example of several:
An associate of Sheila’s (or an associate of hers)
A collection of Bob’s (or a collection of his)

According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, some people dislike this idiom, but it has a long history and is widely approved. It can also be intrinsic to meaning: it wouldn’t make much sense to say a collection of Bob. Nevertheless, it might be better to recast the phrase as one of Bob’s collections.

Using an Apostrophe to Form a Plural

The practice of using an apostrophe to form the plural of abbreviations or numerals has fallen out of favor. The most common usage is to simply add an s: UFOs, the 1940s.

With lowercase letters, an apostrophe is needed for clarity. This is usually unnecessary with uppercase letters, but the apostrophe may be used where confusion might otherwise ensue, as in A’s, I’s, and U’s.

Mind your p’s and q’s.
He got A’s and B’s on his report card.
He got Bs and Cs on his report card.

Chicago offers several examples of when to use the apostrophe to form a plural and when to leave it out:
...Genitives that denote value or time use an apostrophe, as in five dollars’ worth or two weeks’ notice. The apostrophe in this case stands in for the word of.

ifs, ands, or buts
yesses and noes (or yes’s and no’s, especially if used with maybe’s)
dos and don’ts

For special cases like these, it’s best to consult a good style guide. But if you’re forced to rely on your own judgment, don’t obsess over it. When it comes to apostrophe use, intelligent people can disagree. Jonathan Starble wrote in Legal Times about a rift in the 2006 Supreme Court case Kansas v. Marsh: in the majority opinion, Justice Thomas consistently used Kansas’ statute, while in the minority opinion, Justice Souter used Kansas’s statute. Although I consider myself a political moderate, I have to side with Justice Souter on this one.

Andrea Wenger can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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