The Apostrophe S

Below is a sure-fire way of making sure that you never get the apostrophe S wrong again.

Tips for the correct use of the apostrophe s for possession are among hundreds of tips that fill our training days.

There's only one reason for an apostrophe

— it's there to indicate a missing letter or letters, as in it's which is short for it is with the apostrophe showing that the second i has been dropped.

Incidentally, the possessive form of it is its and there is no apostrophe s — there's even a news group dedicated to this fact: alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe

It's easy to test for it's with an apostrophe s: when you find it in text, you should be able to substitute it is — if you can't,  it is the possessive form of it and, like the news group says, it has no apostrophe s.

So what's all this about apostrophe S for singular possessives and S apostrophe for plurals?

The apostrophe is still indicating missing letters but you have to go back to Middle English to find the lost letters — they are a hang-over from the time when English had inflected endings to words; in other words, the function of a word was shown by its having a different ending for different purposes within a sentence.

If you did Latin you'll remember chanting the different endings for nouns and Germanic languages still have the es ending for the possessive. We, on the other hand, show the missing e or es by using an apostrophe.

Be that as it may, let's have a rule for the possessive use of the apostrophe s.

This requires no knowledge of formal grammar and works every time. Of course, you don't make mistakes every time — it's those awkward words which don't take an s to make them plural or which end in s in the singular that present the problems. Let's take the simple phrase The childrens shoes.

The problem is that, as it's referring to more than one child, perhaps it should be S apostrophe; on the other hand, as the plural doesn't end in S, should it be apostrophe S?

Why worry? The following four step method will get it right without pondering such problems.

Step 1

Restructure the phrase using of
The shoes of the children

This does two things.

Firstly, it establishes that there really is a need for a possessive apostrophe — in a phrase such as Fresh Apple's (often referred to as a "greengrocer's apostrophe") it isn't possible to retain the sense of the phrase if one tries to restructure it using of.

Secondly, it gives the root word children that we will need in step 2.

Step 2

Go back to the original using the root word — no apostrophe or S at this stage.
The children shoes

Step 3

Add an apostrophe
The children' shoes

Step 4

If needed, and I know that seems a little arbitrary but it is obvious if it is necessary, add an S.
The children's shoes

Use those four steps and you'll get the apostrophe S or S apostrophe right every time.

The only difficulties arise with proper nouns and you will need to check on usage — in a sense, the 'owner' of the proper noun gets to decide how it is pronounced and therefore how the apostrophe is used.

There is a park in Exeter that goes by the name of Saint James' Park and a park in London's West End called Saint James's Park. The apostrophe and the s tell you how the two places are pronounced.


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