Possessives Made Easy

The mere thought of possessives makes some people cringe. But really, it’s not as hard as you think! We all know that to make a noun possessive, simply add ‘s.

The boy’s hat
The waiter’s tip
The banker’s box

In each of these examples, ‘s  is added after a noun to show that the first noun is in possession or ownership of the second noun.  Also remember that if a singular noun happens to end in s, we still use ‘s to make it possessive.

The bus’s seats
My boss’s office
The cactus’s thorns

Where many people become confused is when making a plural noun possessive.  If you are struggling with this, first determine for certain whether the noun is singular or plural.  If plural, form the plural word first, including the ending s.  Once you have your plural noun spelled correctly, then form the possessive.  In most cases, if the plural form of the word ends in s, simply add the apostrophe to make the plural noun possessive.

Example:  (Apostrophe omitted for illustration) The boys clothes will be kept in the hall closet.

 In this example, we must first determine whether it is one boy or multiple boys whose clothes will be kept in the hall closet.  If it is one boy, then boy  is the correct spelling of the noun, of course, so simply add ‘s  to the end to form the possessive.

The boy’s clothes will be kept in the hall closet.  (Meaning:  One boy will keep his clothes in the hall closet.)

However, if there is more than one boy, then first make the plural form, boys, and add .

The boys’ clothes will be kept in the hall closet.  (Meaning:  More than one boy will keep their clothes in the hall closet.)

A very common error that I have seen on street signs: Kid’s meals half price, or Kid’s furniture on sale.

The way these examples are punctuated, only one kid would receive a meal for half price, and only one kid would have furniture on sale.  The signs should read:

Kids’ meals half price and Kids’ furniture on sale.

Some nouns form their plural with words which do not end in s, such as children.  In this case, add ‘s.

The children’s toys
The men’s department

Proper nouns can be somewhat trickier for many people.  I will never forget, not long after I first opened my court reporting firm in a suburb of Atlanta, my husband and I bought a new home.  My assistant presented us with a housewarming gift, and it was obvious she was quite excited and proud of her choice.  Upon unwrapping the gift, I opened the box to find a beautiful brass door plate which read The Donovan’s. 

What a dilemma!  I hated to hurt my assistant’s feelings, but grammar being my “thing,” I could not bring myself to display this grammatically incorrect plaque on my front door to be the official greeting for all who may come to visit!

The intended meaning of the plaque is: This is where the Donovans live.  There are two of us Donovans, so Donovans must be plural.  Had the plaque read The Donovans House, then the correct spelling would have been The Donovans’ House, indicating the possessive form of the plural of Donovan.  But simply stating The Donovans, no apostrophe is needed, and adding the apostrophe is in fact incorrect.  Under no circumstances could The Donovan’s  be correct, whether or not the word house followed, because Donovan’s indicates the possessive form of one Donovan, singular.   The house belonging to the Donovan obviously does not make sense under either scenario.

When it comes to proper names, just follow these rules.  If the proper name is singular, meaning referring to one person, and does not end in s, simply add ‘s to make it possessive.

Mr. Donovan’s house

If the proper name is plural, meaning it refers to more than one person, add the s or es to make it plural, and then add after the final s to make it possessive.

The Donovans’ house

If the proper name is singular and already ends in s, you may add or ‘s to form the possessive.  Both are considered correct.  How I determine which one to use is by thinking of how the possessive form is pronounced.  If I can hear the es ending on the possessive, then I use ‘s.  If I cannot hear the es ending on the possessive, then I just use .

Chris’s house
Amos’s car
Mr. Reynolds’ briefcase
John Adams’ office

One of the most common errors I see when it comes to plural possessives, whether in deposition transcripts, newspaper print, e-mail, Atlanta billboards, or published books and articles, is the use of an apostrophe for a plural form of a word that is not possessive.

Example (Incorrect):  We like to meet the needs of our client’s. 

YIKES!!  When I see this, it makes me cringe, as I’m sure it would anyone who knows and cares about grammar.  While the sentence is referring to the clients’ needs, in this sentence, no apostrophe is needed after the word client because of the phrase needs of.  The possessive expression is already addressed by that phrase.  Clients is actually the object of the prepositional phrase, of our clients. Additionally, in this instance, clients is plural.  So even if the sentence read We like to meet our client’s needs, it would still be incorrect.  The correct sentence would be We like to meet our clients’ needs – A classic plural possessive!

It looks like a lot to remember, but it really just boils down to a few basic rules for both common nouns and  proper nouns.

To make a singular noun possessive, add ‘s.

To make a plural noun possessive, first spell the word correctly as a plural noun.  Then add the   if the plural ends in an s or ‘s  if the word does not end in (like children).

Follow these basic rules, and you’ll have possessives licked in no time!


© 11-2013