The Apostrophe

Apparent Problems

As we have seen, the basic rule for the use of the apostrophe is to place it after the name or other word referring to the possessor. Thus:

Possessor Possession Expression
the prince shoes the prince's shoes
the princes toys the princes' toys
the princess tiara the princess's tiara

As long as this rule is followed, few problems should arise. However, oddities of form and spelling sometimes suggest problems where none really exist.

The following examples are ones where mistakes are commonly made, but in fact they follow the rules.

Burns & James are singular so we add 's even though they end in s:

Burns Burns's
James James's (e.g. St. James's Park)

Baby & lady become plural by adding ies. They are clearly plural, so we add only the apostrophe:

baby babies'
lady ladies'

Men is the plural of man, but we treat it like any word with no s:

men men's men's clothing
women women's
children childen's

Occasionally the rules are broken, especially with foreign words or longer words which already contain an s or similar sound.

It is acceptable to write:

  • Moses' basket
  • Achilles' heel
  • Ulysses' horse

where Moses, Achilles and Ulysses are singular possessors.

Ulysses's horse follows the rule, but try saying it!

Equally you might see Charles Dickens' novels although Charles Dickens's novels would be just as acceptable.

If in doubt, stick to the rules and add 's

Stranded Apostrophes

Sometimes a possessor is marked with an apostrophe, but no possession is mentioned. However, you can probably supply the possession in such cases, even if you aren't sure of the exact word.

They got married at St Paul's (church).

I'll stop at the baker's (shop).

Let's meet at Simon's (house).

This kind of omission of words is called ellipsis, and is an important feature of English style.

Even odder is the double possession which occurs in phrases such as:

a letter of John's
or
a friend of the family's

In these, possession is marked by the use of of, but an 's is thrown in for good measure, although not really necessary.

Where more than one singular possessor is mentioned, the convention is to place the 's after the last named possessor:

David, Mike and Susan's tent

Glasgow and Edinburgh's art galleries

For plural possessors, the apostrophe is usually repeated.

The choir needs both boys' and girls' voices.

We need men's and women's changing rooms.

Think how the meaning would change if the apostrophe wasn't repeated.

Long Phrases

Positioning the apostrophe in a long phrase can sometimes be a problem; it is usually placed at the end of the phrase describing the possessor, as in:

Charles I's reign

It was the whole class's fault.

someone else's computer

the person who lives opposite me's garden

her then fiance (now her husband's) camera

If you are unsure about the possessor in examples like these, try using a phrase with of:

the garden of the person who lives opposite me

English lets us use both constructions and a decision is often made on the grounds of stylistic preference.

Sheila's car

the car of Sheila

In spoken English,when referring to a human possessor, it sounds more natural to use the 's.

In more formal language, or where the possessor is an abstraction, or in problematic examples, the of form may be preferable.

Who Who's Whose?

Who and whose are words to watch out for.

Who is used to ask questions in sentences like:

Who came to dinner?

Who's coming to dinner?

(who is)

It can also be used to join together parts of a sentence:

This is the man who came to dinner.

In this case there is a special possessive form, whose, as in:

The man whose car was stolen came to dinner.

Everyone whose number is called wins ten pounds.

Strictly speaking, whose is used only in reference to people. However, there is no similar word to use for things or ideas, so increasingly whose is used for them as well.

It is quite common to see sentences like:

The film, whose ending was very sad, made her a star.

The only available alternative is:

The film, the ending of which was very sad, made her a star.

This may be a case where the language is changing in order to meet a need.

Exercise

For these sentences, you are given the more formal form with of. Paraphrase the sentences using the form with the apostrophe.

Drag and drop the required words into the box below the sentence and then add or remove 's by tapping on the preceding letter.

These
are
the
paintings
of
Van
Gogh
.
Reset
Drop words here.
The
strike
of
the
fire
service
is
finished
.
Reset
Drop words here.
She
contested
the
leadership
of
the
party
.
Reset
Drop words here.

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Copyright © STELLA
stella@arts.gla.ac.uk