Apostrophes and Possessives: the ‘s form

The owner of this hair and nail salon close to where I live should have paid more attention in class (or at least checked their grammar before getting this sign). Using an apostrophe + s to make a noun plural is incorrect – a very common mistake which unfortunately looks even worse on a shop window.

So how should we use the ‘s form?

The ‘good’ news for learners of English – you’re not the only ones who get confused. Even native speakers make mistakes when it comes to apostrophes. This sign in Northern Ireland cost around £1,200 to reprint after the misplaced apostrophe was spotted by the public.

Apostrophes


We use an apostrophe + s to talk about possessions, relationships and characteristics. We don’t use the ‘s form to make plurals. Compare these sentences:

Did you get your nail‘s done?  incorrect
Did you get your nails done?  correct (singular: nail, plural: nails)
My mum‘s nails look great.  correct (possessive)

We can also use an apostrophe + s to show that some letters have been omitted:

She’s leaving. She is leaving.
It’s hot. It is hot.
That’s not what I meant!  That is not what I meant!

In this post, we’ll have a look at how and when we use the possessive ‘s form. Check out next week’s post for more information on plurals.

Possessives: Use


Instead of having to say ‘that’s the house of my father’, it’s much easier to say ‘that’s my father’s house’ – this is where the possessive ‘s form comes in. We use the possessive when the first noun refers to a person, an animal, a country, an organisation or any group of living things.

Say...Not...
My father's houseThe house of my father
Fran's brother plays footballThe brother of Fran plays football
John's eyes are like his mother'sThe eyes of John are like the eyes of his mother
The dog's ears are infectedThe ears of the dog are infected
The company's management is excellentThe management of the company is excellent
Switzerland's climate is changingThe climate of Switzerland is changing

We can also use an ‘s to talk about something produced by someone:

Do you believe the boy’s story?
Have you read Mark’s latest Facebook post?
What are Switzerland’s main exports?
The company’s decision was rather unwise.

When talking about someone’s actions, we can either use ‘s or of – both are correct:

The president’s arrival. The arrival of the president.

We can also use ‘s with expressions of time:

yesterday’s paper
last Monday’s meeting
last Sunday’s match
tomorrow’s weather

When not to use ‘s


We don’t use the possessive ‘s form with nouns that are not the names of people, animals, countries, etc. We usually use of in such cases:

Say...Not...
the name of the streetthe street's name
the front of the roomthe room's front
the bottom of the pagethe page's bottom
the roof of the housethe house's roof

However, as with any rule in English, there are some exceptions. With these expressions, both ‘s and of are considered correct:

the earth’s gravity  the gravity of the earth
the train’s arrival  the arrival of the train

Confusing, indeed – unfortunately, no fixed rules exist. It all depends on the expression, so my advice is to read as much as possible and, when in doubt, look the phrase you’d like to use up online and check the results.

Spelling


singular noun + 'smy mother's nails
plural noun + 'my parents' house
irregular plural noun + 'swomen's clothes
the children's room

With singular nouns, we add ‘s to the end of the noun. When a singular noun ends in -s, there are two ways we can show the possessive. We sometimes just add an apostrophe (‘) to the end of the noun:

Socrates’ trial
Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’

However, there is a lot of discussion on whether this form is actually correct. Some style guides say that simply adding an apostrophe is enough when a noun ends in -s, whereas others say an apostrophe + s is required. When in doubt, choose one form and stick to it throughout your writing. Adding ‘s is more common:

Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’
Charles’s dog

We can also add ‘s or just an apostrophe to a whole phrase, for example:

The man next door’s dog pooped in front of our house.

When talking about something that belongs to two people, only the last noun gets an ‘s:

My mother and father’s car  correct
My mother’s and father’s car  incorrect

On the other hand, have a look at these two sentences:

Mark and Clarissa’s children  one group of children with Mark and Clarissa as their parents
Mark’s and Clarissa’s children  two groups of children, Mark’s and Clarissa’s

That’s it! Hopefully this clears things up – and if you’re thinking of spending money on a sign for your shop or business, do check your spelling or ask for advice!

Questions? Comments? Send a message or leave a comment!