English Grammar

Possessives and Apostrophes

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Possessives are nouns and pronouns used to show various kinds of possession or belonging (ownership, authorship, relationship, and other kinds of attachment). Most singular possessive nouns (including names ending in s, z, or x) end in Ďs, and most plural possessive nouns end in . Exceptions to the latter rule are plural nouns that do not end in s, for example, the possessive of children is childrenís.

2. Possessives can be subjective or objective. An example of a subjective possessive is Johnís in Johnís car (John owns the car). An example of an objective possessive is studentís in the studentís expulsion (someone expelled the student). Some possessives can be either subjective or objective depending on context. The managerís reward, for example, can be a reward given by the manager (the manager rewards someone) or a reward given to the manager (someone rewards the manager).

3. Possessive pronouns are my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, and theirs. My, your, her, its, our, and their always precede the nouns they modify (my hat, your computer, our house). Mine, yours, hers, ours, and theirs are called absolute possessives. These possessives donít precede nouns but are used absolutely, i.e., separately (That hat is mine, That computer is yours, That house is ours). His can be an absolute possessive; however, it can also be used in the attributive position (his book, That book is his). Absolute possessives not only show possession; they also function as subjects, objects, and predicate nominatives. Examples: (as a subject) I donít know where your coat is, but mine is right here; (as a direct object) Katie has my ruler, and I have yours; (as an object of a preposition) I donít care what you do with your own toys, but be careful with ours; (as a predicate nominative) Those books are hers.

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4. We come now to a topic to which Lynn Truss devotes more than thirty pages of her popular book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the use of the apostrophe. Truss bemoans the fact that the apostrophe is becoming an object of neglect or misuse. Here is what you need to know:

a. The apostrophe can be used to show the person or thing to which someone or something belongs (as a possession, a part, an aspect, a right, etc.), for example, Saraís coat, the kidsí teacher, the peopleís rights, Mr. Jonesís opinion.

b. The apostrophe is used for certain plural forms. Usage varies here; the safest course is to use Ďs for the plural forms of individual lower-case letters and of abbreviations requiring periods: three rís, two Ph.D.ís. All other plurals may be written without apostrophe.

c. The apostrophe is used to replace missing letters or numerals, for example, Iím (I am), youíre (you are), donít (do not), letís (let us), and the class of Ď96 (the class of 1996).

d. To form the possessive of most singular nouns, add Ďs, as in Matthewís mother, a carís surface, and a friendís house. This rule applies even to the singular forms of most proper nouns ending in s: Jamesís career, Tessís piano, Jensís sorrow. Ancient names ending in s tend to form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe: Ramsesí tomb, Archimedesí principle, Mosesí commandments, Jesusí disciples. In general, if a possessive is pronounced without a voiced s, use the apostrophe only, e.g., Mr. Sandersí.

e. If two or more people possess something jointly, put Ďs on the last name only, for example, Katie, Anna, and Jakeís sandbox. The apostrophes in the expression Brianís and Alanís bicycles tell the reader that the boys own separate bicycles.

f. To form the possessive of plural nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe: the teachersí classrooms, her classmatesí interests, the customersí wishes. Plural proper nouns do the same: the Smithsí, the Humphreysí, the Jonesesí. If the plural ends in a letter other than s, its possessive is formed by adding ís: most deerís mothers, the fishís mouths, the childrenís attitude.

g. Do not use an apostrophe to form the plural of proper nouns. Here are several examples: the Watsons, two Courtneys, three Charleses, the Dubois (French names ending in s, x, or z are usually left unchanged in the plural).

h. Do not use absolute possessives, appropriate as predicate nominatives, as attributive adjectives. Note these expressions:

- her [not hers] and his house

- our [not ours] and your friends

- their [not theirs] and my classmates

- my [not mine] and your teacher

- your [not yours] and my pets

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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