• 3-minute read
  • 20th September 2018

Possessive Apostrophes and Joint Ownership

We’ve written about apostrophes before on this blog, but today we want to look specifically at possessive apostrophes.

Join us, then, for a quick look at who owns what.

Possessive Apostrophes

Possessive apostrophes indicate ownership. Typically, this will involve adding an apostrophe plus the letter ‘s’ after a noun or someone’s name:

Derek’s hair was messy.

The chair’s leg is wonky.

Here, for example, the apostrophes show us that the hair belongs to Derek and that the leg belongs to the chair.

Possessive Apostrophes After ‘S’

The main variation on the rule above comes when a word already ends in the letter ‘s’. In this case, you can either:

  1. Add an apostrophe plus another ‘s’ (e.g. Alanis’s grasp of irony…)
  2. Or just use the apostrophe by itself (e.g. Alanis grasp of irony…)

Both of these are accepted in modern English. However, if you’re writing an essay or for a specific publication, you may want to check your style guide for advice on which approach to use.

Plurals and Possessive Apostrophes

Plurals that end in ‘s’ sometimes cause confusion when using a possessive apostrophe. The key here is that possessive apostrophes should always go after the final ‘s’ in a plural. For instance, imagine if we wanted to talk about two dogs with empty food bowls:

The dogs’ bowls are empty.

The dog’s bowls are empty.

The first sentence here suggests multiple dogs and multiple bowls. But the second implies one dog with more than one bowl. And while this not ungrammatical, it is still an error since it does not say what it is meant to say.

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Separate or Joint Ownership?

Working out where to put possessive apostrophes when two or more people own one thing can be tricky. Ultimately, though, it comes down to whether you’re talking about:

  1. Two or more people who separately own the same type of thing
  2. Two or more people who jointly own something

For instance, if two people both had a stamp collection, we might say:

Tims and Rachels stamp collections are very valuable.

Here, we use an apostrophe for both Tim and Rachel because we’re talking about two people owning two separate stamp collections. This is also why we have the plural noun ‘collections’ and the plural verb ‘are’. But let us imagine that Tim and Rachel share a stamp collection instead:

Tim and Rachels stamp collection is very valuable.

In this case, we only use one apostrophe because ‘Tim and Rachel’ are treated as a single unit known as a compound subject. This is also reflected in the singular noun ‘collection’ and singular verb ‘is’.

This distinction can be harder to spot when dealing with a mass noun:

Bobs and Beryls luggage was lost in transit.

Bob and Beryls luggage was lost in transit.

In the first sentence here, Bob and Beryl have each separately lost their luggage. In the second, Bob and Beryl have lost their shared luggage. But since ‘luggage’ is always singular, we only have the apostrophes to tell us who owns what. In cases like this, then, correct apostrophe use is crucial!

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