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Teaching Possessive Proper Nouns to ESL Students

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 6/6/2012

Possessive proper nouns are proper nouns that indicate possession of or some other relationship to another noun. This article takes you through the grammar rule for a possessive proper noun including spelling and pronunciation rules, use, and teaching examples.

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    Nouns are traditionally defined as words that name people, places, things, and ideas. A proper noun is a more specific type of noun that names a specific and usually one-of-a-kind person, place, thing, or idea. Proper nouns also always begin with a capital letter in written English. The following sections provide the information necessary for teaching the grammar rule for a possessive proper noun including spelling rules, pronunciation rules, and usage.

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    Spelling Rules

    Teaching English language students the grammar rule for a possessive proper noun begins by teaching the spelling rules. First, for a singular proper noun or a plural proper noun that ends in any letter other than s, add an apostrophe s ('s) to the end of the word. For example:

    • Espen's favorite toy is his hedgehog.
    • Have you been to Alex's house?
    • Elves make toys in Santa's workshop.
    • London's public transportation system is the envy of my town.

    Second, for a singular proper noun* or a plural proper noun that ends in the letter s, add an apostrophe to the end of the word. For example:

    • Where are James' slippers?
    • Louis' office needs cleaned tonight.
    • Someone needs to move the Davids' cars.
    • Has Grandma seen the Joneses' Christmas cards?

    Third, for proper noun phrases, follow the above rules and add the apostrophe s ('s) or apostrophe to the end of the entire noun phrase. For example:

    • The Queen of England's carriage crashed this afternoon.
    • Illinois State University's admission policy is quite stringent.
    • Where is the Ministry of Home Affairs' guest entrance.
    • The College of Arts and Sciences' Dean quit yesterday.

    Fourth, for proper nouns joined by a coordinate conjunction in which the nouns share joint possession, follow the above rules for singular and plural nouns and place the apostrophe s ('s) or apostrophe after the final noun. For example:

    • Margaret and Joel's first home was in Ohio.
    • My brother mows Tom and Toby's yards.
    • Matthew, Brandon, and William's gift are under the table.
    • The tree branch smashed into Naomi and Harry's car.

    Fifth, for proper nouns joined by a coordinate conjunction in which the nouns have individual possession, follow the above rules for singular and plural nouns and place the apostrophe s ('s) or apostrophe after each noun. For example:

    • Fluffy's, Stinky's, and Sherman's bowls need washed.
    • That young man tends to Harvard's and Yale's landscaping.
    • Please put Chang's and Cho's coats in the back closet.
    • Felip's and Sasha's letters came today.

    *Note that some styles require adding an apostrophe s ('s) to the end of all singular nouns including singular nouns that end with the letter s.

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    Pronunciation Rules

    Teaching students to pronounce possessive proper nouns in English involves learning four simple pronunciation rules. First, if the last sound of the plural proper noun is [s] (s, se, ce) or [z] (z, ze), then the possessive suffix is not pronounced. For example:

    • Noun – Possessive Form – Pronunciation
    • Joneses – Joneses' – [jonzәz]
    • Jane Does – Jane Does' – [jen doz]
    • Bobs – Bobs' – [bobz]
    • Glenns – Glenns' – [glɛnz]

    Second, if the last sound of any other proper noun is [s] (s, se, ce), [š] (sh), [č] (ch), [z] (z, ze), or [ĵ] (j, dge), then the possessive suffix is pronounced as a voiced ez [әz]. For example:

    • Noun – Possessive Form – Pronunciation
    • James – James' – [jemsәz]
    • Ash – Ash's – [ašәz]
    • Midge – Midge's – [mIĵәz]
    • Liz – Liz's – [LIzәz]

    Third, if the last sound of the proper noun is a voiceless consonant, then the possessive suffix is pronounced as a voiceless [s]* (s). Voiceless consonants, which are also called unvoiced consonants, are produced by not vibrating the voice box in the throat. The voiceless consonants in English are [p] (p, pe), [t] (t, tt, te), [k] (k, ck, ke), [f] (f, gh), [θ] (th), [h] (h), and [j] (y). For example:

    • Noun – Possessive Form – Pronunciation
    • Jake – Jake's – [ĵeks]
    • Steph – Steph's – [stɛfs]
    • Gap – Gap's – [gaps]
    • Matt – Matt's – [ mats]

    Fourth, if the last sound of the proper noun is a voiced consonant or vowel, then the possessive suffix is pronounced as a voiced [z] (z). Voiced consonants are pronounced by vibrating the voice box in the throat. The voiced consonants in English are [m] (m, me), [n] (n, ne), [b] (b, be), [g] (g, ge), [v] (v, ve), [w] (w), [r] (r, re), [l] (l, ll, le), [ð] (th), and [ŋ] (ng). All English vowels are voiced. For example:

    • Noun – Possessive Form – Pronunciation
    • Paul – Paul's – [polz]
    • Troy – Troy's – [troiz]
    • Ben – Ben's – [bɛnz]
    • Sav – Sav's – [savz]

    *The letters in brackets are the sounds written in the International Phonetic Alphabet followed by some spellings of the sounds in written English.

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    Using Proper Nouns Possessively

    Teaching "use" is the easiest aspect of teaching possessive proper pronouns to English language students. As words and phrases that indicate possession of or some other relationship to another noun, possessive proper nouns function as determinatives.

    Placement of a possessive proper noun in relation to another noun is simple: Place the possessive proper noun immediately before the other noun. For example:

    • the car that belongs to Caitlyn – Caitlyn's car
    • the neighbor of Margo and Billy – Margo and Billy's neighbor
    • the mother of the King of Spain – King of Spain's mother
    • the expensive vases that belong to Carly and Jimmy (individual possession) – Carly's and Jimmy's expensive vases

    Possessive proper nouns may also function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular verb and describes the subject. Placement of a possessive proper noun functioning as a subject complement is also simple: Place the possessive proper noun immediately after the copular verb. For example:

    • the shoes that belong to Ashley – The shoes are Ashley's.
    • the parking lots of the University of Illinois – The parking lots are the University of Illinois'.
    • the crown belongs to Princess Fiona – The crown is Princess Fiona's.
    • the dog of Christophe and Marie – The dog is Christophe and Marie's.

    English instructors teaching the formation and use of possessive proper nouns can provide students with lists of nouns and proper nouns. The students can then form the possessive proper noun and use the noun in a made-up sentence, easily learning the grammar rule for possessive proper noun along the way.