How can apostrophes correctly show possession?
This is the third of four lessons about Apostrophes. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of possession when using apostrophes
– Explore six rules for demonstrating possession with apostrophes
– Provide examples of how apostrophes may make pronouns, singular nouns and plural nouns possessive
This third lesson about one of the trickiest punctuation marks, the apostrophe (’), next focuses on how this mark may be used to demonstrate possession between one concept or object and another. Before beginning this lesson, however, it’s worth pointing out that the use of such terms as ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’ to describe the following relationships is somewhat of a misnomer, as less than half of the instances of such punctuation in the English language actually represents possession. To better explain this, let’s look at the following two examples:
In example (a), the red and wonderful bike is certainly owned by Jake, but in (b), Jake doesn’t in any way own the new teacher: Jake simply has a relationship with that teacher. These two examples can therefore show that although constructions using an apostrophe may be commonly described as being possessive, in reality they most often demonstrate a simple genitive relationship between two or more items.
Why is it important to use possessive apostrophes correctly?
Because there’s a great deal of variation in how to make a word possessive that’s dependent on both the word type and its grammatical form (such as whether singular or plural), and because any errors in this area will undoubtedly change the meaning of the phrase, it’s critical that students of academic English are able to use this punctuation mark correctly every time. Four famous examples of this variation can be seen below, in which each slight difference in apostrophe use greatly alters the meaning of the proposition:
The next section of this lesson now explores the six areas that should be focussed on when using apostrophes to show possession, offering rules to cover the use of certain pronouns, adjectives and nouns in your writing, as well as providing considerations of singular and joint possession and business and place names.
Rule 1: Apostrophes with Pronouns
While personal pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘you’ should never require an apostrophe as they cannot show possession, certain indefinite pronouns such as ‘anybody/anyone’, ‘everybody/everyone’, ‘nobody/no-one’ and ‘somebody/someone’ can demonstrate possession through the following common structure:
Rule 2: Apostrophes with Possessive Adjectives
For possessive adjectives such as ‘my’ or ‘your’ (which are sometimes labelled as possessive pronouns), the rule here is that these words are already possessive and as such do not need the addition of an apostrophe or ‘-s’ suffix. One particular possessive adjective that may confuse students though is the third-person ‘its’ – which is the possessive form of ‘it’, as in: ‘Have you found its (the cat’s) mother?’. A student should only write ‘it’s’ using an apostrophe if they instead mean ‘it is’.
Rule 3: Apostrophes with Singular Nouns
Whether countable or uncountable, the simplest rule when making a singular noun possessive is to add an apostrophe and the suffix ‘-s’ to the noun that has ownership, as in ‘the teacher’s bag’. However, because many common nouns such as ‘bus’ or ‘spectacles’ and many proper nouns such as ‘Jones’ and ‘Hastings’ already end in an ‘-s’ (demonstrating an /s/ or /z/ sound), there can be some confusion and variation here. In such situations, it’s unclear whether both an apostrophe and an ‘-s’ should be added to the end of the existing noun or simply the apostrophe.
The best piece of advice we can give here is to read the phrase aloud. If you pronounce an extra /s/ when speaking (which is common with nouns that end in ‘ce’, ‘s’, ‘se’, ‘x’, ‘xe’, ‘z’ or ‘ze’) then add the extra ‘-s’ suffix, and if you do not then simply add the apostrophe, as is shown in the following examples:
Additionally, for acronyms or initialisms such as ‘NATO’ or ‘BBC’, the rules are the same as for singular nouns. These abbreviations, when possessive, would be written as ‘NATO’s’ and ‘BBC’s’, respectively.
Rule 4: Apostrophes with Plural Nouns
For regular plural nouns that already end in the plural suffix ‘-s’, the general rule here is to add only an apostrophe and not the additional possessive ‘-s’. This rule is also true for plural proper nouns such as ‘Joneses’ or ‘Hastingses’. However, for irregular nouns such as ‘woman’, which becomes ‘women’ when plural, both an apostrophe and ‘-s’ should be added to the end of words such as these. To further clarify this for you, the following table provides examples of possessive regular plural nouns, possessive plural proper nouns and possessive irregular plural nouns:
Rule 5: Showing Joint Possession
Sometimes it may be necessary to show individual or joint possession when there’s more than one possessor in the same noun phrase. As is exemplified in the following table, in such scenarios the rules are as follows: (1) when showing that each possessor owns something separately (individual possession), make each noun possessive in the normal way using rules one to four, and (2) if multiple possessors own the same thing (joint possession), only make the final noun possessive:
Rule 6: Business and Place Names
One final aspect that’s worth mentioning when it comes to demonstrating possession using apostrophes is that both business and place names do not necessarily follow the previous five rules. Aside from a few rare instances, place names in both the USA and Australia for example are purposefully written without the apostrophe when possessive. This is precisely the opposite scenario however in the United Kingdom, in which spellings such as ‘St James’s Park’ or ‘King’s Lynn’ are commonly seen. Additionally, while some businesses (particularly those created from family names such as ‘Sainsbury’s’) may more commonly include the apostrophe to demonstrate possession, this has become less popular in recent years. Nowadays, many businesses such as ‘Harrods’ and ‘Barclays’ do not use the apostrophe at all.
Now that we’ve discussed the six most important rules of using apostrophes to form the possessive, our fourth and final lesson on this subject deals with avoiding some of the most common apostrophe errors that students are likely to make.
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