engcit grammar online

art courtesy of
Janet Preslar, FrActivity

Plurals vs. Possessives

Many students (and others) struggle with whether or not to use the apostrophe when adding "s" to a word. The most common mistakes are with nouns and verbs. Remember, verbs, like "see" and "draw," will never use an apostrophe when "s" is added, as "s" denotes the present tense third person.
  • She sees the bird.
  • Dan draws really well.

That established, the real dilemma, then, is whether to add an apostrophe to a noun. Let's go over some basics. When we add "s" (without apostrophe) to the end of a noun in English, we are making the item plural...in other words, more than one.

  • Car = one car
  • Cars = more than one

Obviously, there are plurals that do not involve "s", such as the plural of woman or child (women, children). In any case, you would not add an apostrophe to the "s" added to a noun if it is to pluralize it, either before or after, as that would change the meaning of that word. So when do we add an apostrophe? And what meaning does it impart?

We add apostrophes with "s" under three conditions:

  1. Possession, which means an object belongs to the noun (not pronouns...see below).
    1. When the noun is singular and does not end in "s", merely add apostrophe before "s" ('s) to show possession.
      • Bob's car is a Porsche. (the car belonging to Bob)
      • The dog's collar is red. (the collar of the dog)
      • My mother in law's job requires travel. (the job held by the mother in law)
      • The man's Volvo was upside down at the river's edge. (the Volvo belonging to the man, the edge of the river)
    2. When the noun is plural or ends in "s" already, put the apostrophe after the existing "s" (s'): when it's plural, adding the last "s" is not necessary.
    • Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is a classic.
    • Janis's career was meteoric but short.
    • The girls' mothers were in that scout troop, too. (more than one girl)
    • The doctors' insurance restricted them from operating on animals. (more than one doctor)

  2. Contraction, which is the condensing of two words into one, the apostrophe replacing the missing letter, usually of the word "is" (see Contractions).

  3. RARELY used as a plural, and this is only for symbols, numbers, words created out of initials (acronyms) and words used out of context, used to clarify that the pluralizing "s" is not one of the letters of the word or acronym.
    • Instead of &'s in your sentences, use and's and other additive conjunctions.
    • Most of my friends have M.S.'s and PhD's.
    • Mind your P's and Q's.
    • She used to sell BMW's; now she sells IRA'S at BofA's throughout the state.
Do not use apostrophes for Possessive Pronouns, specifically:
its (not it's or its')
Since there is no way to pluralize these words, the apostrophe for possession is not necessary.

Remember that most people make the mistake of overuse of apostrophes. If it does not fit any of the above categories, leave it out.

Updated August 10, 1999
© Mr. Thomas T. Eiland