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