© Damen, 2002

13. Possessives and Plurals.

English has an odd convention, a remnant of medieval times and something we might all be better without, but it has become traditional and so, whether or not it should be discarded, it will not be done away with easily. It is the apostrophe signifying, among other things, possession: Mark's, Cleopatra's, Greece's. It shows that "Mark," "Cleopatra," or "Greece" possesses something (or is closely associated with it).*

The situation becomes complicated with nouns, particularly names, which end in -s, such as Augustus, Achilles or Pope Pius. In making these possessive, standard English practice today presents a choice about whether or not to add an (extra) -s along with the apostrophe and, as far as I'm concerned, either is acceptable: Augustus' or Augustus's, Achilles' or Achilles's, Pope Pius' or Pope Pius's. If, however, the noun ends in -s because it's plural, there is not a choice. You add only the apostrophe: the Greeks' culture, these peoples' conflict, the three kings' gifts. The only major exception to the rule that possessives in English use an apostrophe involves certain possessive pronouns, such as its, hers, ours, theirs, which don't use an apostrophe.**

This is so simple, and yet so many students get it wrong so often I think there must be something else at work here. Perhaps the problem stems from the apostrophe itself which does not correspond to anything in spoken discourse. In other words, to judge only from the way we speak there's no way to tell whether or not to put an apostrophe in. And while most students are aware of the use of apostrophes in English, sometimes they become confused about whether a noun ending in -s should use one or not, that is, whether the noun is possessive or plural. Both, after all, have -s on the end!

If that's your problem, ask yourself this. Is the noun owning something (or being associated with it)? If so, it's possessive and you should add an apostrophe: Marcia's book, Cleopatra's asp, Greece's mountains. All these things (book, asp, mountains) are the possessions of (or in close relationship to) Marcia, Cleopatra and Greece. If, on the other hand, the -s word is not in possession of the other thing, it's plural and does not require an apostrophe: the gods controlling Babylon, the rains in Spain, the punishments paid for sin.

So, it is worth memorizing these two simple rules:

A. If a noun owns something or is closely associated with it, it's possessive. Use an apostrophe. [Exception: pronoun forms like its, hers, whose, ours, yours, and theirs]

B. If not, it's plural. Don't use an apostrophe.


*Apostrophes are also used in verbal contractions, such as "there's," "who's," "can't," "isn't," "won't," and "didn't." But because these are verbs and don't have equivalent forms lacking apostrophes as the noun forms do, they cause far less confusion. Thus, I focus on possessive forms in discussing apostrophes here.

**Unlike most other contractions, "it's" does get confused with "its" rather often, but it's easy to remember its rule, since all standard English contractions use an apostrophe, no exception. Thus, if there's an apostrophe with "it's," it must be a contraction of "it is," and "its" with no apostrophe must then be the possessive form of "it." The same is true of "who's" (contraction of "who is") and "whose" (possessive, "of whom, belonging to whom").

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