Possessive apostrophes cause more problems than any other punctuation mark…
Learn to use possessive apostrophes properly and you’ll demonstrate your mastery of written English.Use them badly, however, and you’ll instantly create a bad impression.
Apostrophes do two things.
The first one is simple and causes few problems: use them to indicate missing letters in contracted words like can’t and they’re. See the page on contractions for more info on this usage.
The other use is to show possession. These are known as possessive apostrophes, and this is where it can get a bit confusing, but bear with me.
Tip #1: Use ‘s to show that something belongs to something else
Take this sentence:
The cat belonging to Sam is sick.
This is OK, but we can use ‘s to shorten the sentence to:
Sam’s cat is sick.
Note that as well as adding the ‘s we also change the order of the words – the ‘owner'(Sam) now comes before the ‘ownee’ (the cat).
Check the longer version of the sentence to work out where the ‘s goes. The ‘owner’ is Sam, and that is the word you add the ‘s to. The cat is the ‘ownee’, and it doesn’t have any punctuation. Remember- the possessive apostrophe belongs to the owner.
The customer’s orders have been dispatched.
The orders of the customer have been dispatched.
The president’s birthday is in June.
The birthday of the president is in June.
1. Don’t use the possessive apostrophe with the word it. It’s can only mean a shortening of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.(See the page on contractions).
2. If the ‘owner’ ends in an ‘s’ already, see tip #2 below.
Tip #2: If the owner already ends in an s, use just the possessive apostrophe.
All our customers’ details are kept on the database.
All the details of our customers are kept on the database.
Here we are using the same method as tip #1, but because there is already an s on the end of the word ‘customers’ (indicating more than one, in this case), we drop the second s after the apostrophe. Why? Simply becausewe no longer say customers’s – it doesn’t sound right.
My colleagues’ report was well received.
The report of my colleagues was well received.
The shop owners’ committee meets every month.
The committee of the shop owners meets every month.
The manager gave him two weeks’ notice.
The manager gave him notice of two weeks.
Three employees’ cars were stolen.
Cars that belonged to three employees were stolen.
There are a few exceptions
1. If the owner is a name ending in s, you can add another s after the apostrophe (but you don’t have to – it’s optional). For example:
James’ house is on fire can also be written as James’s house is on fire.
2. If the owner ends in ss, add ‘s as in tip #1. For example:
The boss’s secretary will contact you.
Tip #3: Systematically check your writing for tips #1 and #2 until it becomes second nature
When you’ve finished writing your first draft:
1. Highlight all the nouns (or things/people/places) ending in s. Not all of them will need an apostrophe – some will just be names or plurals.
2.If you can you rewrite the sentence as ‘the ______ of _______’ (for example the cars of the employees) or ‘the _____ belonging to ______’ (likethe cat belonging to Sam), you need a possessive apostrophe.
3. To check where it goes, see if the owner(s) already end in s. That tells you whether to use tip #1 or tip #2.
Don’t rely on Grammarchecker to help you with this. Often, the only way to tell if there is one or more owners is by the position of the apostrophe – that is, only YOU can decide. For example:
My customer’s report
The report of my customer.
My customers’ report
The report of my customers.
Moving the apostrophe changes the meaning, so if you still aren’t sure where to put it, it might be better to write ‘the report of my customers’.
Don’t worry if you’re still confused. With a little practice you’ll get the hang of it, and you’ll soon be correcting everyone else’s mistakes.