Grammar, Writing

Possessives: Where to put the apostrophe and the S

We use possessives when we want to show that something belongs to a person, or when people are somehow connected to each other. In other languages, this is often done by writing the word for the object, followed by that other language’s form of “of”, followed by the noun that indicates the person that the object belongs to. It would translate as “the car of Steve”, “the laptop of the professor”, “the shoes of Andrea”, or “the dogs of the Gomez family”.

Although we can write possessives this way in English—and it might even work well in certain contexts—in most cases, it would sound awkward and unnatural. To show possession in English, we normally start with the noun that signifies the person. This could be a name or a common noun such as “pilot” or “neighbor”. We add an apostrophe to this noun, followed by the letter “s”. This is called a possessive noun.

Below in boldface are some examples of possessive nouns that refer to just one person:

These are Michael’s records.

Why does that lady’s hat have so many feathers?

I found Hana’s phone.

What happened to the cowboy’s horse?

While a possessive noun usually refers to a person, it can also refer to a thing or a place.

I think that truck’s muffler needs to be replaced. (In this sentence, the truck is a thing, not a person, but the muffler belongs to it.)

The school’s parking lot is being repaved. (In this sentence, a place is part of a larger place.)

Singular nouns ending in “s”

What if a noun ends in “s”? Can we form a possessive noun by adding an apostrophe plus an “s” to a word that already ends in “s”?

Yes, we can add an apostrophe and an “s” to a noun that already ends in “s”. However, we only do this if the noun is singular.

Today is the boss’s birthday.

The virus’s symptoms are usually mild.

The bus’s brakes made a squealing sound.

Have you seen the photos from James’s vacation?

My son is in Ms. Harris’s class this semester.

I just love the sound of Elvis’s voice!

Unfortunately, this is one of those tricky areas of English where even the experts can’t agree on the rules. For writing proper names that end in “s”, some style guides recommend dropping the “s” that comes after the apostrophe. Thus, in the above sentences they would write James’ instead of James’s, Ms. Harris’ instead of Ms. Harris’s, and Elvis’ instead of Elvis’s.

In general, though, using the apostrophe followed by an “s” is the safer choice. However, if you are using a particular style guide for an academic paper or some type of field-specific writing, check to see what that guide recommends.

Plural nouns

Sometimes, something belongs to more than one person. To show possession involving two or more people, we write the common noun or name, followed by “s”, followed by an apostrophe.

The teachers’ lounge is off-limits to students.

Where is the nurses’ station?

The Smiths’ front yard is covered in dandelions.

I think the Jeffersons’ apartment is somewhere near the park.

The musicians’ studio is on Eight Mile Road.

Can you help me find the Conleys’ landline number?

There are some exceptions to this rule, so keep reading…

Plural nouns that end in “s”

As we detailed in our previous article, plural nouns that end in “s”, “ss”, “x”, “sh”, and “ch” can be tricky. Instead of simply adding an “s” to make them plural, we need to add “es”.

Now, if you want to change a word even further so that it is plural and possessive, you write the name or common noun, plus “es”, and then add an apostrophe at the end.

Let’s go back to one of our previous examples and see how this works with the word “virus”.

The virus’s symptoms are usually mild. (This sentence refers to only one virus.)

The viruses’ symptoms are usually mild. (This sentence refers to more than one virus.)

Here are some additional examples:

The waitresses’ uniforms are old and shabby.

The foxes’ den is behind that tree.

The churches’ conference will be held at the Hilltop Convention Center.

I can’t read the addresses’ numbers.

The marshes’ plants are thriving this year.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Surnames that end in “s” can be confusing. Even native English speakers often make mistakes when writing the plural and possessive forms of surnames such as Jones or Williams or Davis. The plural forms of these names are, in fact, written the same way as other plural nouns. Instead of ending in “s”, they end in “es”. Then we add an apostrophe after the final “s” to show possession.

The Joneses’ house is bright orange.

Next week is the Davises’ family reunion.

I heard the Williamses’ van is for sale.

What about surnames that end in “z”, “x”, “sh” or “ch”? Those names follow the same rules.

The Gomezes’ dogs are so pretty.

Can you find the Bushes’ beach house?

You should see Marxes’ movies.

The Finches’ trees came down during the storm.

An exception to this rule would be if a name ending in “ch” makes a hard “k” sound (Bach, for example), in which case we just add an “s” followed by an apostrophe.

If you still aren’t sure about how to write the possessive form of a noun, click the blue box below. One of our TextRanch editors will review your writing and give you some feedback. If you want a more in-depth explanation of how the rules of English grammar work, check out our new Ask an Editor feature.

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4 Replies to Possessives: Where to put the apostrophe and the S

  1. For non-living things, apostrophe and then the lowercase ‘s’ is never used! It is not ” Table’s corner” but “Corner of the table.” Thanks.

    1. Yes, you can use an apostrophe and an “s” to show relationships or connections between non-living things. Your example of “table’s corner” is a good one. Since the corner is part of the table, we would use an apostrophe followed by an “s” if we want to write a sentence such as “The table’s corner is against the wall.”

      You can also write “the corner of the table” if you prefer.

  2. Hi
    Well, it is really tricky and I am confused.
    I cannot understand these examples:

    The bus’s brakes made a squealing sound.
    The school’s parking lot is being repaved.
    The teachers’ lounge is off-limits to students.
    Where is the nurses’ station?

    There are plenty of similar cases when we don’t usually put an apostrophe.
    For example, airport lounge, shop windows, or company rules.

    Definitely, a lounge belongs to the airport or rules belong to the company, but if I am not mistaken we use them like collocations that don’t need an apostrophe.
    Or am I wrong?

    How to differ such cases and understand when an apostrophe is really needed.
    Thanks

  3. Thank you for your question.

    First of all, teachers and nurses are people, so if those spaces belong to them or are designated for their exclusive use, then we use an apostrophe.

    For places and things, we normally use an apostrophe when we want to emphasize the relationship between the place/thing and the place/thing that is part of it. I agree that this can be tricky. In most cases, you can choose to use the apostrophe or not, depending on the context. For example, either “school’s parking lot” or “school parking lot” are grammatically correct, but there might be situations where you want to emphasize that this particular parking lot is part of this particular school.

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