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 Use of the apostrophe
apostrophe

We have had two questions about use of the apostrophe:

Everson Mpofu in Zimbabwe asks:

What distinct difference is there between the use of an apostrophe on plurals that end with 's' like boys' toys and names that end with 's' like Jesus's gown?

Jeff Marsden in Canada asks: When I was in school and taught about apostrophes, one thing I remember was that nouns ending in a double 's' simply took the apostrophe without adding another 's'. Examples: the princess' crown and the boss' secretary. In the USA you would see princess's and boss's as standard practice. Has it come to this in the UK?

Roger replies:more questions

The possessive 's is used in a number of different ways to signal any of the following:

possession
relationship
characteristics
physical features
qualities
measurement

 

If you are using a regular plural noun ending in 's', you simply add an apostrophe ('):

  • 'Both boys' toys had been broken by their elder brothers.'
  • 'He was sentenced to ten days' prison.'
Otherwise, if the plural noun is irregular, like 'children' or 'women', you add apostrophe s ('s), as you would for singular nouns:
  • 'The children's party was cancelled because so many were away on holiday.'
  • 'The child's illness was so severe that he remained in hospital for four weeks.'
However, if the singular noun ends in 's' as in your example, Everson, you can either just add an apostrophe (') or apostrophe 's' ('s):
  • 'All of Dickens' novels have now been adapted for television.'
  • 'All of Dickens's novels have now been adapted for television.'

Note that these spellings are pronounced differently. If you simply add an apostrophe, the pronunciation does not change, but if you add apostrophe 's' ('s), the possessive is pronounced /iz/.

With singular nouns ending in double 's', as in your examples, Jeff, I think it is more normal to add apostrophe 's' ('s) because the spelling with apostrophe s then indicates the pronunciation required:

  • 'The boss's secretary resigned.'
  • 'The princess's diamonds were worth two million pounds.'
In these last examples, incidentally, the plural form would have the same pronunciation as the singular:
  • 'The princesses's diamonds were worth two million pounds.'
    ( = more than one princess)

  • 'The princesses' diamonds were worth two million pounds.'
    ( = more than one princess)
Only the spelling or the context would indicate how many princesses there were!

Other things to watch out for when using the possessive s:

If something belongs to, or is associated with, more than one person whose names are linked by 'and', the apostrophe 's' ('s) is placed after the second name:

  • 'Five hundred guests were invited to John and Sally's wedding.'
There is sometimes no need to add a following noun, if the context clarifies what the discussion is about:
  • 'They got married at St Peter's.'
  • 'Are those Peter's golf clubs?' 'No, they're not Peter's. They're Michael's.'
The possessive form is used in a prepositional phrase beginning with 'of':
  • 'Maggie, a colleague of Mary's, came to the opening of the exhibition. Rufus came too.' 'Who's Rufus?' 'He's a friend of my husband's.'
Note that the names of decades are usually written without apostrophes:
  • 'In the 1970s, house prices rose faster than in any previous decade in Britain.'

See also the Learn it! age: Possessive apostrophes


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