Apostrophe Help Please!

I just received an email from Heather, who is desperate to understand correct apostrophe use for possessives. Relax, Heather. It isn't as tricky as it seems. We can cover the basics in just four simple rules.

1. Generally, we do not use apostrophes to make a plural (that is, to indicate more than one). That is why these examples are all correct without an apostrophe:

The defendants agree to the settlement.
The citizens have not forgotten what happened.
The boys need a ride home from the game.

2. To make a singular word possessive, add an apostrophe and an s:

This defendant's attorney has left a message. (one defendant)
The citizen's request was quite reasonable. (one citizen)
The boy's father picked him up already. (one boy)
The boss's flight will arrive at 4 p.m. (one boss)

3. To make a plural word possessive when the plural ends in s, add just an apostrophe:

Both defendants' attorneys edited these notes. (two defendants)
The citizens' lobby has become huge. (many citizens)
The boys' fathers picked them up already. (two or more boys)

4. To make a plural word possessive when the plural does not end in s, add an apostrophe and an s.

The children's reading room is colorful. (children = plural of child)
The alumni's contributions kept the college afloat. (alumni = plural of alumnus)
The men's club has disbanded. (men = plural of man)

Those are the basic rules. But Heather also wanted to know what to do when two entities possess something. Should both names be made possessive? Do both names need an apostrophe?

That depends. If they share the thing they possess, they share the apostrophe. If each person has his or her own, each also has his or her own apostrophe.

My mother and father's home is in Florida. (They share the home–they share the apostrophe.)
Davey's and Ella's toothbrushes are already packed. (Each person has a toothbrush–each has an apostrophe.)
The girls' and boys' teams are both in the playoffs. (Both girls and boys have their own team–both have their own apostrophe.)
The girls and boys' team is excited about being in the playoffs. (One team of girls and boys–one apostrophe.)

We could make the rules slightly more complicated if we wanted to. For example, we could think about the very few instances in which plurals are formed with apostrophes. We could talk about the Associated Press style for forming the possessive when a singular proper noun ends in s (Chris'). But let's not do that today. Instead, let's keep it simple and begin to enjoy our weekend.

If you want to master punctuation, take my online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals

Lynn

16 COMMENTS

  1. Dear
    Your site is very useful. I need your immediate help regarding apostrophe for the following word.

    EMPLOYEES’ OR EMPLOYEES

    If your writes as EMPLOYEES UNION apostrophe should be added or we can write without it. ie..

    EMPLOYEES UNION
    OR
    EMPLOYEES’ UNION

  2. Hi, great article. What about:
    Boss’s or boss’ to indicate your boss owns something?

    Thanks!

  3. Would you use an apostrophe in an organization name? For instance

    Idaho Citizens Self-Defense League

    Thanks for your help.

    Jason Wyman

  4. Jason, the rule is to use an apostrophe if the League does, and to leave it out if the League doesn’t use one.

    If you are naming a new organization, an apostrophe suggests the League is of Idaho citizens or belonging to them. If you leave out the apostrophe, you suggest that the League is for Idaho citizens.

    I hope that explanation helps.

    Lynn

  5. YOUR SITE IS AMAZING, KEEP IT UP. I’M A SALES CONSULTANT FROM GHANA AND I WRITE FOR A WELL-KNOWN BUSINESS BI-WEEKLY IN GHANA. RECENTLY I WROTE AN ARTICLE IN WHICH I USE THE CONSTRUCTION “A BUSINESS’S MAIN GOAL”. A READER ATTEMPTED TO TAKE ME ON FOR USING A WRONG CONSTRUCTION LIKE THAT, BUT YOUR SITE WAS ONE OF THOSE THAT CAME TO MY AID IN HELPING THE ONE UNDERSTAND. I EVEN GAVE YOUR ADDRESS OUT TO THE PERSON FOR FURTHER REFERENCE.

  6. Thanks for letting me know I was helpful, and thank you for passing on the address of the site.

    Keep up your good word defending proper punctuation!

  7. When referring to an event that has been done for a number of years how would I make the statement “This years event was extremely successful…” Is it years or year’s or years’, I am stumped.

  8. Hi Lynn,

    Can you help with the below. I need an immediate help if possible.

    If we were to describe something should we use an apostrophe..

    Boys 8 pack socks
    Boys’ 8 pack socks
    Boy’s 8 pack socks

    Thanks

  9. Hi, Penny. A safe bet is “Boys 8-pack socks.” I would argue that “boys” is not so much a possessive (the boys don’t own the socks yet) as a descriptor. The socks are for boys rather than belonging to boys.

    People will argue with my suggestion, but I don’t think you can really go wrong. However, you must have a hyphen in “8-pack” used as an adjective.

    Sorry my response wasn’t as quick as you needed. My work schedule doesn’t allow me to provide “immediate help.”

    Lynn

  10. Hi, Lynn.

    What about Writers’/Writers Conference or Pastors’ Wives’/Pastor’s Wives Conference.

    I think the answer to the question about the Idaho Citizens League may pertain. Leaving out the apostrophe means the conference is for the target audience. So, it would be Writers Conference. (Unless the writers own the conference.)

    Regarding the Pastors’ Wives Conference, wives would not be possessive because they do not own the conference. The conference is for them.

    The word Pastors would be possessive because it does show ownership (Not literal ownership, obviously. Is there another word for that in this context?) However, I then wonder if Pastor would be singular or plural.

    Pastor’s Wives (one pastor, many wives?)

    Pastors’ Wives (many pastors, many wives?)

    The conference is for wives of pastors. (Not polygamist pastors, btw.)

    Thanks for your site and your help.

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