Is It Plural or Possessed? When to Use Apostrophe -S

punctuation marks apostrophe s

Punctuation marks: how to use apostrophe-s.

It’s one of those grammar glitches that makes English teachers twitch, and it’s a perplexing punctuation problem.

Knowing when to use an apostrophe and when to use apostrophe -s can be tricky, but this grammar quickie provides all you need to know about plural versus possession when it comes to apostrophe -s.

Pluralization

You can have one or you can have many. Do you have a dog or do you have dogs? Generally speaking when you’re using an “s” to indicate more than one, you simply add an “s” to the word. That’s it, you’re done.

Possession

Is it plural or is it owned? If you’re showing ownership, then you need to use apostrophe -s. You have a dog. Your dog has a collar. That is the dog’s collar. If something (collar) belongs to something else (dog), the thing that belongs is given the apostrophe -s to show possession.


Multiplicity

But what if you have more than one dog and they each have their own collar? You have dogs. They have collars. Those are the dogs’ collars. When you’re dealing with more than one owner, the plural “s” is added and the apostrophe follows.

Apostrophe -S and the Word “It”

One of the most common spelling mistake happens with the word “it,” especially when people try to indicate possession. Should you add the apostrophe -s or not? When does it take apostrophe -s and when does it just take an s?

The Exception to the Rule

One word in the English language stands out as an exception to the rule when it comes to plural versus possession. The word “it” is treated a bit differently. In fact, there is no plural possession at all because “it” is inherently singular. That’s a relief. But what about when “it” owns something?

When you are showing possession with the word “it,” you simply reverse the rules and lose the apostrophe. The car has wheels. Its wheels are round. See? No apostrophe when something belongs to “it.”

What About “It’s?”

“It’s” is neither possessive nor plural. When the apostrophe -s is added to “it,” what you’re seeing is a contraction, or a shortening of two words. In short, the phrase “it is” is being shortened. If you have a hard time remembering this, try saying your sentence or phrase by replacing “its” or “it’s” with “it is.” If “it is” works, then you have a contraction and the apostrophe is required. If not, then just an “s” will do.

Remembering the Punctuation Rules for Apostrophe -S

Remembering the rules is easy. All you have to do is remember that if there’s ownership or possession, then the word should take apostrophe -s. If there are many or the word is plural, then just an s will do. And for the word “it,” the rules are reversed.

Grammar and Exceptions

Like most grammar rules, there are exceptions to the rules that dictate how we use apostrophes, and they are many. For example, when there is more than one goose, you don’t say “gooses,” you say “geese.”

The English language is fraught with such exceptions, and plural forms of many words require more than adding an “s” to the end. Learning all the exceptions takes patience and time, and requires that you constantly pay attention to words with special rules. Always keep an eye out for them.

Do you have any tips to add for remembering the punctuation marks and grammar rules for plurals and possessions? Leave them in the comments!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

53 Responses to “Is It Plural or Possessed? When to Use Apostrophe -S”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    Nice wee article. The one thing I would have added is what to do when the noun ends in an s, or a double-s, like ‘princess’. This is covered quite nicely in the Wikipedia article under the subheading: Singular nouns ending in s, z, or x.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe

  2. BrentD says:

    I was taught in high school that in the case of a word ending in s pluralization is shown by an apostrophe following the s.

    Such as “It was Chris’ shoe.”

    Imagine my surprise when upon entering college after a long hiatus, my professor instructed me to use an apostrophe s.

    Such as “It was Chris’s shoe.”

    It still seems weird to me. What do you think?

    • R.S says:

      When something ends with an “s” and it’s a belonging, you should put s’.
      Your example for: Chris’ shoe is correct.

      It cannot be “Chris’s shoe” because then that would be “Chris is shoe”.

      Hope that helped ;)

      • Hi R.S. I appreciate your input, but it’s not quite accurate. The Chicago Manual of Style specifically provides the following examples for possessives: Kansas’s legislature, Burns’s poems, Strauss’s Vienna, Dickens’s novels, etc. There are exceptions, notably for names “of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound.” Examples include the following: Euripides’ tragedies, the Ganges’ source, Xerxes’ armies. Interestingly, this style guide also notes that both of the following are correct: for Jesus’ sake (and) Jesus’s contemporaries.

        You’ll notice that the rule is derived from pronunciation. If you add and pronounce “-ess” at the end of a possessive word (to indicate possession), then it takes the apostrophe-s, even if already ends with an s.

        Writing “Chris’s shoe” is therefore correct. However, there may be other style guides that use different standards. Again, this is more of a style issue than a hard and fast grammar rule, but I think we should strive to write in a manner that reflects pronunciation (whenever possible), which is why I support the rules set forth by both Chicago and Strunk & White.

        • Retty says:

          Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been seeing that some English newspapers in Indonesia are now using this “Chris’s shoe” example. I am a little bit confused as I was taught to omit the letter “s” after the apostrophe. So, this is a style issue, but how about the grammar rule? Is it now following the pronunciation? Thanks for sharing…

        • Sometimes, there isn’t a grammar rule and we have to make stylistic choices. I think it’s essential for serious writers to possess a style guide and use it adamantly. Also, whenever you’re writing for a publication, you should check to see which style guidelines they use. Good luck to you :)

  3. Ah yes, the double-s ending. That would require adding an -es to the end of course. A good thing to keep in mind, and I will for when this article is updated.

    When a name ends in “s,” you would normally show possession by adding the apostrophe-s ending. The exception is for classical and biblical names such as Jesus and Moses, which would appear as Jesus’ and Moses’.

    As for what I think… I think Chris’s shoe looks and sounds better than Chris’ shoe. You’re going to pronounce that possessive “s” so you might as well write it out.

    Jim and Brent, thanks for visiting!

  4. Aaron says:

    Thanks for the article!

    One of my pet peeves is when people do these thing incorrectly…such dolts.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. millar prescott says:

    I just found your site via BlogRush. Excellent. Thank you.

  6. Shake says:

    This actually clears up a bit, I’m bookmarking the site now

  7. chuckster says:

    What do you use for a retail dept sign?

    Mens or Men’s

    Juniors or Junior’s

    If the sign says Men’s Dept. then I understand the use of the apostrophe, but when just the word MENS is used there is a debate.

    • Yep, you’re right. It should be Men’s Department because it’s possessive (the department belongs to the men). However, the Juniors Department could go either way. Here’s why: The word “Juniors” could be functioning as a modifier (adjective) describing what type of department it is — it’s a Juniors Department. It’s plural because it’s for all juniors (not just one). On the other hand, you could say it’s like the Men’s Department and belongs to the juniors. Now, if it belongs to all the juniors, it should be Juniors’ Department. If it belongs to just one junior, it should be Junior’s Department. Tough call. I think the best way would be Juniors’ Department. In a department store, Juniors’ Department and Men’s Department would be consistent.

  8. ian says:

    what is the word that has a different kind of plural form,if u make it plural the number of its letter became doubled??

    pls help me

  9. Eva Corrales says:

    How about abbreviations?, if I have these two words “Quality Specialists”, is correct to use ‘s to shorten them, i.e., QA’s?

    • Eva, this is a style issue. Some would use QA’s, others would use QAs, and I’m sure a few would insist that the best way is to simply spell it out. The problem with your particular example is that QA is not the acronym for Quality Specialist. It should be QS. My suggestion is pick up a style guide or find out which one your company/boss/publication uses and look this up.

      • Christina says:

        How about something more common, like CDs or CD’s? Any standard there? It took me a moment to remember what that abbreviation means (!), but I don’t know of too many people who write out “compact discs” anymore.

        • This is a style issue, not a grammar issue. However, I would leave the apostrophe out: CDs. I think it looks cleaner and it sticks to the rule that apostrophe-s is used for possession:

          I just bought two new CDs. (plural)
          That CD’s sticker is peeling off. (possessive)

  10. Lois says:

    Since my name is Lois, if I have a friend also named Lois and we own a house together, is it the Loises’ house?

    • If Lois and Lois are characters in a story, I (strongly) suggest changing one of their names to avoid this confusion (and so the readers don’t get too mixed up).

      In terms of grammar, you could do the following:

      That is Lois and Lois’s house.
      That is Lois’s and Lois’s house.
      That house belongs to Lois and Lois.

      These examples sound odd indeed, but we are constructing them just as we would if the people had two different names. I would actually recommend including the last names in those constructions, so they become the following:

      That is Lois Austen and Lois Shephard’s house.
      That is Lois Austen’s and Lois Shephard’s house.

      As you can see, you would apply the conventional grammar rules, but in the end, readability and clarity might trump the rules. Ultimately, you should construct the sentence in the manner you feel is most appropriate (and understandable) for your readers. This might mean completely rewording it:

      Both of the women who live in that house are named Lois. <— best one

      Having said all that, if I were writing it, I would go with your original idea: That is the Loises' house. But this may only work if the two women are regularly referred to as "the Loises." That means it all depends on overall context.

      Great question, and very tricky!

  11. Jami says:

    I’m having a book embosser made for a married couple for Christmas. Let’s say their last name is Walker. Should the embosser read “from the library of the Walkers” or “from the library of the Walker’s”? It’s for two people, last name Walker (no s).
    Thanks!

  12. Jeff says:

    I am writing a novel and have been told by a few of my proof readers, that my usage of ‘s’ is wrong. The trouble is, two of them are saying one thing and the other two another. The phrase in question is referring to the size of a character. Which would be correct?

    Jassaks size.
    Jassaks’ size
    or
    Jassak’s size.

    • Assuming that Jassak is one person, it should be Jassak’s size.

      A quick tip: Because using apostrophes with plural/possession is pretty basic, you might want to make sure your proofreaders know elementary grammar. For example, you shouldn’t be paying someone who recommended either “Jassaks size” or “Jassaks’ size” if Jassak is a single individual. If your proofreaders aren’t getting this basic use of apostrophes correct, then they are probably off on numerous other mechanical issues.

  13. Qadafi Muammar says:

    I want to ask something..
    It’s really confuse me..
    Is it okay to use (‘s) to describe the possession of unliving things?
    We all know if we can say: “Jeremy’s book”
    But how abut “the car key”?
    Can I say “car’s key”, instead of “car key” or “the key of the car”,
    .Thank you,,

    • Hi Qadafi, You chose a unique example because here in the U.S., we don’t say “the car’s keys” or “the keys of the car.” Instead, we assign “car” as an adjective to the noun “keys.” They are simply car keys.

      However, you can use apostrophe-s to describe the possession of inanimate objects:

      The car’s wheels.
      The book’s cover
      The blog’s title

      Great question!

      • Qadafi Muammar says:

        Thank you so much for the inspiring answer. I got problems with that, because here in Indonesia, some of the grammatical structure are quite the same, but very different answer. And somehow, I got that problem and got the complication with Indonesian meanings.
        That’s why some of English language experts in Indonesia said that using those example, such as “car’s wheels” or “book’s cover” are false, or forbidden.
        Once again I say thank you.. :)

  14. Demmi says:

    How about with names? I found this very helpful, I’m a novice writer and I’ve had some battles with my microsoft word with certain grammatical issues such as this. But how about the ‘s in names that end with s?
    Like would you have Roberts be:
    That is Roberts’ cat.
    or:
    That’ is Roberts’s cat.
    If Roberts is a single person and that is his name, would it be the first or the third? I’ve heard many different interpretations of rule, but I’d like to know what you think. I usually use the first rule, but lately more people have been telling me that it’s wrong.

    • Roberts would not be a single person; his name would be Robert.

      That is Robert’s cat.
      That cat belongs to Robert.
      That’s Robert’s cat.

      Let’s use a name that ends with s.

      That is Jess’s cat.
      That cat belongs to Jess.
      That’s Jess’s cat.

      Hope that helps.

  15. LoriM says:

    I transcribe medical reports and edit word recognition. When a doctor says “The roommate’s family’s home.” is there some other way that should be punctuated? We are not suppose to change anything the doctor actually said, so I cannot change it to the home of the roommate’s family. Thank you!

  16. Jim says:

    Hello,

    As a ESL student, I am confused when it comes to ‘s in this context:

    company vision and company’s vision

    What is the difference? When to use one or the other correctly?

    Thank you.

    • The phrase “company vision” uses the word “company” as an adjective. “Vision” is a noun. It is similar to “red car” where “red” is the adjective and “car” is the noun. This tells us what kind of vision we’re dealing with.

      In the phrase “company’s vision,” both words are nouns; however, “company’s” is possessive, meaning that it owns (or possesses) something: in this case, it possesses the vision. This tells us the vision belongs to the company.

      For the most part, the two constructs are interchangeable. Either one works and both are correct. However, one might be preferable to the other depending on context. I’d need to see the whole sentence to determine whether one is more accurate or correct.

      Hope that helps :)

      • Andrea Schwark says:

        With regard to the content above, I have a similar grammar issue that is presenting itself within several of our divisions. Our company creates, prints and publishes product manuals for all of their products. We refer to these manuals as Owners Manuals. Lately, other people that proof this material are saying that Owners is possesive and it should be Owner’s Manuals. Please help because no one at our company seems to be on the same page with this one.

        Example of use:
        If you would like a copy of a Door owner’s manual, contact John Doe at xxx-xxx-xxxx and he will send you a flash drive containing all of the owner’s manuals.

        Thank you!

        • If you’re talking about manuals for multiple products/owners, then the correct format would be Owners’ Manuals (plural possessive).

          If you’re talking about manuals that all pertain to one product/owner, then the correct format would be Owner’s Manuals.

          If someone is proofreading one of them, they would be proofreading the Owner’s Manual.

          Another consideration is capitalization. If you’re talking about owners’ manuals in general, you’d use lowercase. If you’re talking about a title, like Door Owner’s Manual, you’d use title case (capitalizing the words).

          Hope that helps!

  17. Matt says:

    How do you feel about using an apostrophe in lieu of the i in ‘is’?

    E.g. “Matt’s handsome” for “Matt is handsome”.

    I have seen this a few times around the interweb and it took me a while to work out what was meant from the context of the rest of the sentence.

    I would never do it, and would always write, “Matt is handsome”. However, it is certainly spoken/pronounced in that manner… so is it acceptable when transcribing speech or similar?

    Thanks

    • It depends on the type of writing and the context. People do speak in contractions, so this construction works well in dialogue and may be acceptable in some types of informal writing. However, I too have gotten hung up on this use of the apostrophe (how in the world does Matt possess or have handsome when he should be handsome?), so it’s definitely not appropriate in formal or business writing.

  18. Mandi S. says:

    I have twin girls that share a room. I want to put “The Ladies’ Room” on their door and want to make sure it’s correct. I hope guests don’t think their room is a bathroom!

  19. Allison says:

    Is writing, ” An American ex-pats’ culinary adventures” correct? We’re are making business cards and can’t agree 100%. Any input would be heavily appreciated. Cheers!

  20. Ok, I must say that I am trying. This is a great topic and discussion. I did save it to favorites and plan on reading it more than once. In today’s world it’s very important to learn punctuation correctly. I did’nt listen or learn the correct way while attending elementary school. I am thirty years’ old. I also live in the south and we use contractions. Here’s one that I’m trying to figure out based on the ladies’ room question. How would you write, “In the resturants we are building, all of the ladies rooms are going to be on the left sides of the buildings”. In addition is my comment, I am thirty years’ old correct? In this day and age, with the use of cellphones, correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling is going to become a lost art. All one has to do is look back 150 years to see how much the english language has change. I can’t even imagine what will be spoken and how. This talk and discussion really makes me want to learn english grammar correctly. Perhaps taking some college courses on english grammar just for fun. And to think it all started with an apostrophe, and the letter “S”.

    • With “ladies room,” you can go two ways:

      1. Ladies’ room (the room that belongs to the ladies): this uses the plural possessive.
      2. Ladies room: this uses “Ladies” as an adjective that describes the type of room.

      The correct way to state your age is as follows: thirty years old.

      Thanks for sharing your questions and thoughts!

  21. aremell says:

    I am writing a cover letter for a resume and would like to know if this is correct,
    ” … your organizations’ employment opportunity as a …”.

    I would also like to thank you for the time and effort it must take you to run this site.

    Sincerely,
    Aremell

    • Hi Aremell,

      Your use of the apostrophe is incorrect in this case. It should be as follows:

      … your organization’s employment opportunity as a …

      Good luck!

  22. Cindy says:

    My daughter (7th grade) had a grammar and punctuation test. She had to correct — The three companie’s computers were stolen.
    She corrected as– The three companies’ computers were stolen.

    Her teacher corrected it by removing the apostrophe. Can you help me understand?

    • I would say your daughter had it right (companies’ computers), but who am I to argue with a teacher? If you wanted to dispute the grade, you’ll need to use a credible grammar book, not a blogger.

  23. Roy says:

    I often see some words with the “s” enclose in bracket …for example package(s) …what does the enclose (s) indicate and why…?

    • Placing the s in a bracket is a way of saying that there may be one or multiple. Here’s an example sentence:

      Do you have the package(s)?

      In this case, the speaker/writer probably doesn’t know whether there is one or several packages, and the (s) indicates either/or. However, if you know whether there is one or many, then you should use either singular or plural, not this method of both.