Apostrophe (possession)

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The use of the punctuation mark the apostrophe (') to show possession is quite easy - if you know the rule. Unfortunately, too many writers have not learnt the rule. Many students are intimidated by what seems complicated - but can be mastered by most intelligent adults within minutes. It may take concentration. (The apostrophe can also show that you have left a letter out of a word, which can cause confusion.)

When we write about someone (the possessor) possessing (or owning) something, then this is shown by an apostrophe. The rule is:



(This formulation of the rule is the brainchild of Mr Phil Dalton, teacher, formerly of Marist College in Hull.)

Note: the words 'possessor' and 'possession', etc, are not used here with the sense of ownership in the ordinary 'real-life' sense. They are used in a technical sense. If you can substitute 'of', with some re-ordering of the words, then we are talking about 'possession' in the grammatical sense. 'The Bee-keepers Association', for example, can be rephrased as 'The Association of [the] Bee-Keepers', without any implication of legal ownership. It should be written The Bee-Keepers' Association.


  • One boy's books = the book of one boy.
  • Two boys' books = the books of more than one boy.
  • A woman's rights = the rights of an individual woman; Women's rights is the rights of (all) women.
  • Dogs' behaviour is how dogs (in general) behave; A dog's behaviour is how one (particular) dog behaves
  • The USA's voting record is the history of how the USA voted, that is "The States's record" OR "the States' record": it depends on how you pronounce it.
  • Similarly, "James's bike" is correct for those who pronounce 'James' with two syllables when he owns something ('jamez-iz'); and "James' bike" is correct for those who pronounce it with one syllable: 'jamez'.

One exception to this rule is when the possessive is formed with the pronoun "it". To distinguish from the contraction of "it is", the possessive is "its", without an apostrophe: its = of it .


  • Leave the dog to chew its bone.
  • It's chewing a bone.

WARNING: plural nouns which are not possessors never need apostrophes - even if they are abbreviations, like "GPs", or dates, like the "1960s". (Fowler (1996) advises an exception to this exception in the case where the sense would be unclear: "There are three e's in 'excellent'". Using punctuation to increase clarity seems to be exactly what punctuation is for.

AWE takes it a step further: it prefers individual letters to be shown enclosed in a pair of inverted commas: "There are three 'e's in 'excellent'". This seems more logical, and fulfils the same purpose. When we take an individual letter from a word for comment, we sometimes additionally place it between two hyphens, within the inverted commas: '-e-'.)

You may need to see apostrophe (omission) to explain another problem with apostrophes. There is an illustration of the misuse of the apostrophe to mark possession at refuse.

    • (Pedants will insist that the name of the punctuation mark the apostrophe should be pronounced distinctly from that of the rhetorical apostrophe. The name of the rhetorical figure of speech was adopted in English from the French, where it has three syllables, 'a-po-stroff' (IPA: /a pɒ strɒf/). But the French word too is derived from Greek στροφὴ ('strophe') 'a turning', through άπὀστροφος, an adjective meaning 'of turning away', or 'of elision', so all but pedants may ignore this.)