06 October 2014

...Possessive Apostrophes

Accurate placement of possessive apostrophes in formal written English continually baffles and befuddles some people. What is the problem about signifying what belongs to whom, and whether there is just one 'whom' or several of them? Perhaps the ability to understand and apply these particular principles of punctuation accurately goes deeper than classroom learning... 

Perhaps it's in our genes! Perhaps we are genetically pre-programmed to use apostrophes correctly, or not. Like the ability to roll your tongue. Apparently our genes dictate whether we can fold our tongues along their length. I'm a non tongue-roller myself, but adept at apostrophe placement. I would suggest the latter is a rather more valuable skill.

Whatever the reason for the difficulty, here is a small collection of rules and examples. I hope these assist you in deciding where your apostrophe needs to go!

When the possessor (i.e. the name or noun) is singular, the apostrophe precedes an s.

The child’s work… 

The school’s policy…

When the possessor is plural (i.e. there is more than one possessor), the apostrophe follows s.

Pupils’ attainment in Year 6… 

Teachers’ views on the curriculum…

With irregular plurals (i.e. plural nouns which do not end in s), follow the same rule as singular nouns; add an apostrophe followed by an s.

Malorie Blackman is the Children’s Laureate… 

The People’s Republic of China…

The possessor will generally be followed by a noun. In the following cases a plural noun is followed by a verb; an apostrophe is not necessary.

Pupils played for twenty minutes… 

Teachers anticipate change…

When the possessor is “it”, no apostrophe is required.

The elephant is a large animal.  

Its tusks will continue to grow throughout its life.

...Just as you wouldn't pop an apostrophe in yours theirs his hers or ours.

Further reading

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

'Apostrophe Abuse' http://www.apostropheabuse.com/ 

Seely, J. (2009) Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation (2nd edn.) Oxford University Press.

Thanks to Andrew Read for contributing. See: http://articulateyourphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/


  1. If it's followed by a verb, it's not a possessor at all.

    1. I've edited a little, for clarity. Had spotted but ignored my own inaccuracy

      Thanks for your comment.


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Regards, DJA