How to Use Apostrophes to Show Possession

apostrophe with possessivesConfused about where to place the apostrophe when you’re creating possessives?

So am I — especially when a noun (person, place or thing) or proper noun (specific person, place or thing) ends in the letter s or ss.

Consider these examples and how you would pronounce them:

  • Steve Jobs’s daughter forgives him.
  • What are Ms. DeVos’ plans for charter schools?
  • That’s the unrealized promise of Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty.
  • It was Mr. James’s biggest foray into educational philanthropy.
  • The Census Bureau is within Wilbur Ross’ Commerce Department.

You likely would say:
Jobs-es daughter, DeVos-es plans, Lazarus-es poem, Mr. James-es foray, Ross-es Commerce Department, all indicating a second s to show possession.

In my search for answers about adding an s to a word ending in s, I consulted these sources:

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, 4th edition, which begins on page 1 with this guideline:

Form the possessive of singular nouns by adding an apostrophe and an s:

the woman’s hat
the dog’s collar
Charles’s friend
the witch’s broom
the hostess’s home
the fox’s den

The Associated Press Stylebook differs when it comes to showing possession for singular proper nouns that end in s.

It suggests adding only an apostrophe (no s) to show possession in these cases:

Achilles’ heel
Dickens’ novels
Kansas’ schools
Socrates’ life
Tennessee Williams’ plays
Xerxes’ armies

I also found www.thepunctuationguide.com, a site that provides explanations with multiple examples of how to use an apostrophe to show possession. Based primarily on The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, here is what the site offers:

The general rule for forming possessives

The general rule is that the possessive of a singular noun is formed by adding an apostrophe and s, whether the singular noun ends in s or not.

the lawyer’s fee
the child’s toy
the girl’s parents
Xerox’s sales manager
Tom Jones’s first album
Jesus’s disciples
Aeschylus’s finest drama
JFK’s finest speech
anyone’s guess
a week’s vacation
Texas’s oil industry

The possessive of a plural noun is formed by adding only an apostrophe when the noun ends in s, and by adding both an apostrophe and an s when it ends in a letter other than s.

excessive lawyers’ fees
children’s toys
the twins’ parents
the student teachers’ supervisor
the Smiths’ vacation house
the Joneses’ vacation house
the boys’ baseball team
the alumni’s fundraising
three weeks’ vacation
someone with twelve years’ experience

Exceptions to the general rule

Use only an apostrophe for singular nouns that are in the form of a plural⁠ — or have a final word in the form of a plural⁠ — ending with an s.

Beverly Hills’ current mayor
the United States’ lingering debt problem
Cisco Systems’ CEO
the Beatles’ first album

Tips for shared or individual possession and placing apostrophes with other punctuation

Joint possession is indicated by a single apostrophe:

This course will use Robert Smith and Rebecca Green’s psychology textbook.
Explanation: They coauthored the book.

We were at Stanley and Scarlett’s house.
Explanation: They share the house.

Individual possession is indicated by apostrophes for each possessor:

France’s and Italy’s domestic policies are diverging.
Chris’s and John’s houses were designed by the same architect.

The apostrophe with other punctuation:

The apostrophe should never be separated by adjacent punctuation from the word it is making possessive:

Correct: The house on the left is the Smiths’, but the house at the end of the street is the Whites’.
Incorrect: The house on the left is the Smiths,’ but the house at the end of the street is the Whites.’

What about Lands’ End?

An interesting exception to standard apostrophe use with possessives is Lands’ End. Why is it not Land’s End? A post at apostropheabuse.com provides the company’s explanation:

 A lot of people ask why the apostrophe in Lands’ End is in the wrong place.

There have been some silly explanations along the way, but the truth is, it was a mistake. It was a typo in our first printed piece, and we couldn’t afford to reprint and correct it.

In the years since, the misplaced apostrophe has continued to grace our name and our label. And while it has prompted some raised eyebrows among English teachers, it also sets us apart as a company whose continuing concern for what’s best for the customer is unmistakably human.

Opening samples all acceptable

Although they lack consistency in style, all examples listed at the opening can be considered correct, depending on which style guide you consult.

Whether you’re writing a blog, a résumé or a report for work, pay attention to apostrophes used to express possession, and strive to be consistent.

Note: I compose my blog posts in Microsoft Word, where I rewrite and rewrite and apply spellcheck. I then copy/paste them into this blog format. Spellcheck had a field day with this post, suggesting many erroneous corrections. Use care not only with apostrophe placement but also with silly spellcheck!

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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