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Possessives in English: Rules and Preferences

written by: Curt Smothers • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Generally speaking, forming possessive nouns in English is rather simple: Just add an apostrophe and an -s to a singular noun or an apostrophe to a plural noun. However, there are some unusual and special rules that come into play when forming English possessives.

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    The General Rules for Forming Possessives

    • Transform most singular nouns into the possessive by adding an apostrophe -s.

    Examples:

    the boy’s neighborhood

    *Charles’s notebook

    a good day’s work

    **the boss’s time

    *Some writers like to omit the -s after singular nouns of more than one syllable that end in -s. Most writing guides list the foregoing as optional, but stress that the important thing is to be consistent.

    **The apostrophe -s is used after singular nouns of only one syllable that end in -s.

    • Add just an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in -s (unless the plural form of the verb does not end in -s*).

    Examples:

    students’ performance

    dogs’ lives

    ladies’ apparel

    *children's stories

    *mice’s cages

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    Some Special Possessive Rules

    • Add an apostrophe -s to the last word in compound nouns and phrases.

    Example:

    His mother-in-law’s cooking was great.

    • Add -‘s to each noun where there is individual possession.

    Example:

    Bryan’s and Bill’s houses are next to each other.

    But:

    • Add an apostrophe -s to only the last noun in group or joint possession.

    Example:

    Bryan and Bill’s house has a screened porch.

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    The Possessive and the Gerund

    A gerund is a verb made into a noun by adding -ing. Typically, we use the possessive form of a noun (or pronoun) to modify the gerund.

    Examples:

    I was happy about Martha’s winning the prize.

    Martha was worried that Bill’s winning would go to his head.

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    Writers' Preferences for Possessives

    • Inanimate Nouns and Objects

    Although not technically incorrect, most writers prefer to avoid using an apostrophe -s with inanimate objects. Instead of saying “the hotel’s lobby," better writers prefer “the lobby of the hotel." There is no real “rule" here, except that the writer should use intuition and use what “sounds right."

    • Is it a writers convention or a writers’ convention?

    Plural nouns that become adjectives before another noun are called “adjectival labels" or “attributive nouns." The trick is to tell the difference between the latter and the plural possessive. So, in the heading of this section (writers convention vs. writers’ convention), it would be writers’ convention if the convention actually belonged to the writers. On the other hand, if a group of writers are attending the convention, we can omit the apostrophe.

    One good rule of thumb, according to Grammar.com is “if you can insert another modifier between the -s word and whatever it modifies, you're probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use."

    Two examples:

    Everyone agreed that it was a good idea to organize a new writers’ convention.

    Last month I attended a writers convention where over 100 participated.

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    See other BrightHub articles on the possessive at:

    The Three Functions of Apostrophes in Written English

    Lesson Plan: Apostrophe Use

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