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by Diane Sandford

One of the most common mistakes made by college students is using it's (contraction) for its (possessive). How is it that such a simple rule of English is troubling to anyone still in the classroom? The answer is that the rules of English grammar must be used or reviewed often to be remembered. (Being in a classroom and being awake are not necessarily simultaneous occurrences.)

This month we take a closer look at the possessive case (also known as the genitive case in grammar-speak). The apostrophe signals the possessive case, and the position of the apostrophe ordinarily tells us whether that possessive is singular or plural. But wait. Maybe you don't need to read a column on such a simple subject. Take the following quiz and find out.


1.   Hand me James' (or James's) coat.

2.   General Motors' (or General Motors's) employees are anxious about their jobs.

3.   John and Mary's apartment (or John's and Mary's apartment) was beautiful.

4.   He enrolled in a teachers (or teacher's or teachers') college.  


1.   Hand me James's coat. (Some older grammar books allow either form.)

2.  General Motors' employees are anxious about their jobs. (Corporate names formed from plurals take only an      apostrophe.)

3a. John and Mary's apartment was beautiful. (This is joint possession.)

3b. John's and Mary's apartments were beautiful. (Each has an apartment, and each apartment is attractive.)

4.   He enrolled in a teachers college. (The modifer teachers is a plural, not a possessive.)  

Confused? Then read on. Let's take a look at the official rules of possession found in handbooks of grammar (not in grammar's handbooks, which is awkward):

Rule 1. A noun that does not end in an -s: Add an apostrophe s to the end of the noun—e.g., Bob's book, the book's cover, the cover's color. Everyone knows this.

Rule 2. A singular noun: Add an apostrophe s to the end, even if the noun ends in -s, -ss, or -xes. Some examples: James's coat, Lois's friend, the hostess's charm, the witness's statement. [Note: Older grammar books suggest James'. Language evolves.] There are four-and-a-half exceptions to Rule 2:

1) Corporate and organizational names formed from plurals take only an apostrophe. Some examples: a United Nations' study, General Motors' employees. Technically, this sentence is correct: McDonald's's burgers are delicious. This situation clearly calls for a rewrite! The second rule of writing is “do not distract your reader.” (The first rule, of course, is “have something of substance to say.”)

2) Biblical and classical names ending with a /zuhs/ or /eez/ sound take only an apostrophe—Jesus' suffering, Achilles' heel, Xerxes' time.

3) Personal pronouns do not take apostrophes (ours, yours, its, theirs). A close friend calls the tendency to add apostrophes to personal pronouns “apostrophication.” However, compound pronouns –one and –body take the apostrophe s (one's temper, someone's name, nobody's benefit).

4) The possessive before sake takes only the apostrophe. Examples: for goodness' sake, for appearance' sake.

4.5) Quasi-exception: If pronunciation becomes difficult, you may drop the s and retain only the apostrophe, as in Dickens' novels. Either use is acceptable.

Rule 3. A plural noun that ends in an -s: Add only an apostrophe (players' injuries, ten years' imprisonment). Plurals that do not end in an -s take the apostrophe s—for example, men's clothing, children's toys.  

Rule 4. Compound words take an apostrophe s at the end (her mother-in-law's sister).  

Rule 5. Individual possession: Add an apostrophe s, or only an apostrophe to each element.  For example, John's and Scott's expectations were different. (John had one set of expectations; Scott had a different set of expectations.)  

Rule 6. Joint possession: Add an apostrophe s to the final element. Example: Sam and Janet's evening was like a song.  

Rule 7. Possessive with a gerund: If a noun or pronoun modifies a gerund (a verb form that ends in -ing and functions as a noun), use the possessive case. Some examples:   

  • The committee approved his [not him] leasing the property. 

  • The committee approved Jack's [not Jack] leasing the property.

  • Your [not You] being at the meeting was beneficial.

  • Mary's [not Mary] being at the meeting was not beneficial.  

Observations and Advice

If there is any question of misinterpretation or the sentence is simply awkward, consider recasting the sentence using the of-form. For example: It is in the hands of the man from Galilee. Instead of the farm's management or management of the farm, we may say farm management.

The apostrophe s form is used more often for living things (the monkey's paw, Uncle Tom's Cabin) and the of-form is used for inanimate objects (the beginning of the end, my friend's family). There are plenty of exceptions—e.g., the ship's provisions, in harm's way, etc. The book‘s cover and the cover of the book are almost interchangeable possessive forms.

The relative pronoun whose can be used for both animate and inanimate objects, such as the circle whose center is at the origin.

Always consider recasting a double possessive. For example, he is a friend of my brother's can be changed to he is one of my brother's friends. Nevertheless, both are grammatically correct. The double possessive is considered “an idiom of long and respectable standing in English.”

It is idiomatic to use the possessive form with periods of time and statements of worth—three weeks' notice, three dollars' worth.

The apostrophe is actually part of the spelling of a word, not a mark of punctuation. Its use is to indicate contractions and possessives. The current trend is to omit apostrophes for plural numbers or letters, but either use is correct.  

(a)     She counted three A's.

(b)     She counted three As.

Change the sentence a bit, though, and the apostrophe is essential: She counted three a's in the country's name. 

When in doubt, consult your reference sources for the correct possessive form of these expressions. Don't rely on your grammar checker to identify missing or misused apostrophes.  Above all, apply the rules with consistency. For an intensive discussion of possessives, I highly recommend Garner's Modern American Usage, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2003). 

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.