Improve your English: the possessive apostrophe

boats


The orange boat is my mother’s (the orange boat belongs to my mother)

 

The possessive apostrophe is a punctuation mark (‘) used to show possession: to show that something belongs to someone or something.

Apostrophes were first used to mark possession in the late 16th century, but without clear guidelines they continued to be used inconsistently for centuries.

We have clear rules for their use now but many people, including native-English speakers, still feel unsure about how to use the possessive apostrophe correctly, and I think it’s probably the punctuation mark that causes the most confusion!

The headline in the image below is from a popular UK newspaper: can you spot their mistake? 🙂

 

Telegraph headline possessive apostrophe

 

Here are some of the main guidelines for using apostrophes to show possession…

 

Singular nouns

possessive apostropheAdd an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to show singular possession (one owner).

Examples:

1. My father’s car (the car belonging to my father)

2. My sister’s new shoes (the shoes belonging to my sister)

3. The orange boat is my mother’s (the orange boat belongs to my mother)

4. The cat’s eyes are blue.

5. The government’s new policies are very unpopular.

6. She inherited her grandmother’s house.

 

Plural nouns

For nouns where the plural is made by adding ‘s’,  the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’.

For example:

1. girl – girls

The girls’ hockey kits were covered in mud.

2. cat – cats

We keep the cats’ beds in the conservatory.

3. teacher – teachers

The English teachers’ new classes start in September.

 

For common plural nouns that don’t end with ‘s’, add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ 

For example:

1. person – people

Princess Diana was known as the people’s princess.

2. man – men

He works in the men’s clothes department.

3. woman – women

Have you read the latest edition of Women’s Health magazine?

4. child – children

Children’s shoes are so expensive.

 

Possessive pronouns

Do not use an apostrophe with the possessive pronouns hers, his, yours, ours, theirs, to show possession or belonging.

You’ll probably quite often see people writing her’s and your’s and their’s – but it’s incorrect so please don’t do it 😉

 

Its, it’s or its’?!

Its is a pronoun meaning ‘belonging to it’. Its is possessive but does not have an apostrophe.

Examples:

1. Our local bookshop needs to reduce its prices to compete with Amazon.

2. Scotland is famous for its whisky.

3. My daughter’s dog left its muddy paw prints all over my jeans!

 

It’s is always the contraction of it is or it has – it has no other meaning.

And there is no such word as its’ 🙂

 

Confused? It’s not surprising if you are 🙂

So, should we stop using the possessive apostrophe?

Some people think that the possessive apostrophe should be abandoned because it causes so much confusion: others think that it’s essential for meaning.

What do you think?

Any questions?

This is just an introduction to using the possessive apostrophe and I know it can sometimes be difficult and confusing to know how to use it correctly, so if you have any questions, please ask 🙂

 

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Angela Boothroyd

Angela Boothroyd

English language teacher at Botanical Linguist
Hi, I'm Angela, the Botanical Linguist, and I show learners of English how to become successful and self-directed or independent language learners. If you want to improve your English accuracy and fluency and learn everyday strategies and activities that will help you learn English without spending a lot of money on lessons, subscribe to my free newsletter here.
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd

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Comments

  1. I’m all for getting rid of it. It drives me nuts, or should that be drive’s 😉
    Sarah Arrow recently posted..How to optimize a post using the WordPress SEO PluginMy Profile

    • LOL! No, it’s not ‘drive’s’! 😉

      It doesn’t bother me when I see the apostrophe used incorrectly – well most of the time anyway. I think if it’s used in business materials and other professional writing it’s much better to get it right and to be absolutely clear about meaning, but it’s one of those areas of language where if something is used in a particular way by so many people – particularly in informal contexts – who’s to say if it’s right or wrong and to pass judgement? Language is constantly changing so perhaps the possessive apostrophe will just fade away over time 🙂

  2. Hi Angela,

    Thanks so much for this, you always explain things so clearly! I will have to write it out and keep with me as a checking list :). I think I get it mostly correct. I seem to struggle with remembering the yours and theirs… hopefully I’ll get there one day. 🙂
    Anita recently posted..An afternoon of joyMy Profile

  3. Thanks for this Angela,

    I know it can be very confusing when it comes to using the apostrophe correctly. Spell and grammar checkers aren’t the best either as they can be more confusing than anything.

    Thanks for the explanation.
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