Apostrophes for Possession

One of the most difficult concepts of grammar and punctuation for beginning writers to grasp is the concept of possession. My comment is always this, “If you don’t get possession, maybe it’s because you’re a commie?”

All kidding aside, we use apostrophes for possession. Of course, you could avoid the use of apostrophes by saying things like, “That is the boat of bob,” or “That is the pay of one day.” Yes, that’s right, we used to use the preposition “of” even more than we do now. Instead, we have abbreviated that into, “That is bob’s boat,” and “That is one day’s pay.”

The first thing you want to remember is that possession is generally about owners and the things that they possess including inanimate objects  and abstract things (love, justice, power)— things can possess things and you can have double-possessions.

So, when we have sentences with possessions, you need to know that nouns will be next to nouns.

For example, in the sentences, “The city’s buses are on schedule today,” the city is the owner, but this city owns many buses. City and bus are both nouns.

In another example, “The doctor’s patient was unhappy with his test results,” the doctor possesses the patient — one doctor with one patient.

Therefore, when writing possessions, you need to ask yourself some questions.

  1. How many owners are there? Your options are one (singular) or more than one (plural).

If there is just one owner, the most common rule is to add an apostrophe and an “s” to the word.

a. The child’s toy was broken on the floor.
b. Latanya’s new car has that new car smell.
c. Li’s old apartment caught on fire last week.
d. That was someone else’s idea.
e. I had one good night’s sleep last week.
f. I worked two days but only got a day’s pay.

In each example, you only see one owner.

It’s important to know how many things the owner possesses. Why? Because some things can only possess one thing. For example, cars only have one windshield. So, if you’re writing about a car, you wouldn’t write, “The car’s windshields,” unless you were talking about a very old car.

3. If you have more than one owner, then you make the owners plural and then add an “s” and then add an apostrophe to that. In each of the examples below, there are multiple owners, but they only possess one thing. They own it together.

a. The bottles’ rack was beginning to rock back and forth.
b. It began to smell in the players’ locker room.
c. The owners’ building was infested with bed bugs.
d. I only worked one day but got two days’ pay.

4. Now, it’s important to remember that if you have more than one owner, you may be required to have more than one thing that they own. In each of the examples below, there are multiple owners and multiple things that they possess. In some cases, they have to possess multiple things, it doesn’t make sense.

a. The bottles’ caps weren’t fastened properly.
b. Both of the players’ locker rooms began to smell.
c. Some of the owners’ buildings were being inspected for bed bugs.
d. I only worked one day but got two days’ paid lunches.

5. If you have multiple owners, some don’t use an “s” to make them plural. Instead they use a different form of the word. There are a lot of these words. Here are just a few.

a. Children is the plural of child.
b. Women is the plural of woman.
c. Men is the plural of man.
d. Mice is the plural of mouse.
e. Criteria is the plural of criterion.

6. Now, when making a plural form of a word that doesn’t have an s, but a different form that makes it plural, you treat it just like a singular word — add an apostrophe and then an “s.”

a. The children’s playground is being rebuilt.
b. The women’s luncheon has been cancelled.
c. The men’s rights group is full of deadbeat dads.
d. The mice’s nests are grouped together between the house and the garage.

So, in the sentences above, you have multiple owners owning one thing together or multiple owners possessing multiple things.

7. Now one of the easy ones. We can also have multiple owners’ names and they can share ownership of something. This is easy because we have a famous example with some owners of an ice cream company.

a. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is delicious.

Ben and Jerry share ownership, so they share that apostrophe. But, if Ben and Jerry had a falling out and went their separate ways with each getting their own ice cream company, they would each get their own apostrophe and we could have to make ice cream plural.

a. Ben’s and Jerry’s ice creams are delicious.

8. You can also have double possessions. The most common one you hear is when you talk about someone’s driver’s license like I did just now.

a. I found someone’s driver’s license.
b. Jeff’s driver’s license was stolen.
c. Maria’s driver’s license will need to be renewed next month.

One driver owns the license and someone can own or possess that license.

9. Finally, here are some that I found confusing at one time. First, we’ll start with the plurals that have to do with units of time and aren’t logical.

a. That was for two days’ pay.
b. That wasn’t two weeks’ notice.
c. Don’t I own my two weeks’ paid vacation?

Here are the singulars.

a. That was for one day’s pay.
b. That wasn’t one week’s notice.
c. Don’t I own my one week’s paid vacation?

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