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An apostrophe is used in a possessive form, like Esther's family or Janet's
cigarettes, and this is the use of the apostrophe which causes most of the
trouble. The basic rule is simple enough: a possessive form is spelled with 's at
the end. Hence:
This rule applies in most cases even with a name ending in s:
- Lisa's essay
- England's navy
- my brother's girlfriend
- Wittgenstein's last book
- children's shoes
- women's clothing
- the aircraft's black box
- somebody's umbrella
- a week's work
- my money's worth
There are three types of exception. First, a plural noun which already
ends in s takes only a following apostrophe:
- Thomas's job
- the bus's arrival
- James's fiancée
- Steve Davis's victory
This is reasonable. We don't pronounce these words with two esses, and so
we don't write two esses: nobody says *the girls's excitement. But note
plurals that don't end in s take the ordinary form: see the cases of children and
- the girls' excitement
- my parents' wedding
- both players' injuries
- the Klingons' attack
- the ladies' room
- two weeks' work
Second, a name ending in s takes only an apostrophe if the possessive
form is not pronounced with an extra s. Hence:
Same reason: we don't say *Ulysses's companions, and so we don't
write the extra s.
- Socrates' philosophy
- Saint Saens' music
- Ulysses' companions
- Aristophanes' plays
The final class of exceptions is pronouns. Note the following:
Note in particular the spelling of possessive its. This word never takes an
- He lost his book.
- Which seats are ours?
- The bull lowered its head.
- Whose are these spectacles?
This is wrong, wrong, wrong — but it is one of the commonest of all
punctuation errors. I have even met teachers of English who get this wrong.
The conventional spelling its is no doubt totally illogical, but it's nonetheless
conventional, and spelling the possessive as it's will cause many readers to turn
up their noses at you. The mistake is very conspicuous, but fortunately it's also
easy to fix — there's only one word — so learn the standard spelling.
an English word spelled it's, of course, and indeed I've just used it in
preceding sentence, but this is not a possessive: it's the contracted form of it is
or of it has. And there is no English word spelled *its' — this is another
common error for its.)
- *The bull lowered it's head.
The same goes for possessive whose: this cannot be spelled as *who's,
though again there is a word who's, a contraction of who is or of
who has, as
in Who's your friend? or Who's got a corkscrew?
Note, however, that the indefinite pronoun one forms an ordinary
possessive one's, as in One must choose one's words carefully.
There is a further point about writing possessives: when you add an
apostrophe-s or an apostrophe alone to form a possessive, the thing that
before the apostrophe must be a real English word, and it must also be the right
English word. Thus, for example, something like *ladie's shoes is impossible,
because there is no such word as *ladie. Moreover, a department in a shoeshop
could not be called *lady's shoes, because what the shop is selling is shoes for
ladies, and not *shoes for lady, which is meaningless. The correct form is
ladies' shoes. (Compare that lady's shoes, which is fine.)
Finally, while we're discussing clothing departments, observe that there
is at least one irritating exception: though we write men's clothing, as
write menswear as a single word, with no apostrophe. By historical accident,
this has come to be regarded as a single word in English. But just this one: we
do not write *womenswear or *childrenswear. Sorry.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997