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Oxford Guide
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Introduction

There are plenty of sites dealing with the use of the apostrophe in English, but many people just want a quick answer to a question that arises in the course of their work.  The following examples show correct usage for questions that arise frequently, and apply equally to British English, American English, Australian English and New Zealand English.

A general tip for checking that your use of apostrophes is correct is to change the phrase around so that the part before the apostrophe becomes the last word.  If it still has the same meaning, the apostrophe was correct.

The boy's books

the books of the boy.

The boys' books

the books of the boys.

The children's books     

the books of the children.

Men's shirts

shirts of the men.

Peoples' wishes

wishes of the peoples. (Wrong.)

People's wishes

wishes of the people. (Right.)

I also have a page of style issues here – questions to which there is no single right answer.


It's and its


The possessive of it is its:

  • The dog wagged its tail

It's is a shortened form of it is:

  • It's important to be clear

Tip: his and her don't have apostrophes, so don't put one in its.


Words without
apostrophes


The apostrophe is used to show the possessive form of nouns.  (Possessive here is a grammar term – also known as the genitive – and is nothing to do with ownership.  A noun is a word like horse, house, person, idea, table – a name for something.)  Most pronouns are inherently possessive, and thus do not take apostrophes: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, ours, theirs, whose.

  • This book is hers.
  • This must be yours.
  • The dog whose owner is found will wag its tail.

Words like it's and who's are contractions of it is (or it has) and who is (or who has) and the apostrophe is being used to indicate the contractions (as in isn't and won't) not the possessive.

There is no such word as its' or her's or hers' or your's or yours'.

Pronouns like everybody, everyone, somebody and someone have possessive and non-possessive forms, and so the possessive form uses an apostrophe:

  • This must be someone's book
  • It is everybody's responsibility
  • It is no-one's fault

(Some people would say that although her is a pronoun – "this is her book" – hers is an adjective – "This book is hers". The difference need not concern us here.)


Times


  • Three months' experience
  • One month's experience
  • Today's appointment
  • In two days' time (but could you use just in two days instead, and save a word?)
  • One month's notice
  • Six months' notice
  • A nine-month pregnancy
  • She is eight months pregnant
  • Two hours late

The last three don't take apostrophes; they are not possessives (you can't say "late of two hours").  Wars whose title is their length do not need apostrophes:

  • The Thirty Years War


Capitals


  • CDs (not CD's)
  • PCs (not PC's)
  • 70s (not 70's)
  • I got three As in my examination

Arguably, the last example could be "I got three A's in my examination" to remove the potential confusion between the plural of "A" and the word "as", but the capital A serves as sufficient clarification in my view, especially if set in italics.  More here, and the OGS reference here.


Plurals


  • Discos (not disco's)
  • Videos (not video's)


Names


  • Mavis's job
  • Charles's salary
  • Davy Jones's locker
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Marx's writing
  • Berlioz's music
  • Cervantes's novels
  • Jesus's teachings
  • Moses's triumph
  • Euripides's plays
  • Venus's statue
  • Mars's children
  • Ajax's sword

Some of these are pronounced with an awkward "zuziz" or "eeziz" sound so some people prefer to drop the final s, and some guides allow this "for classical names ending in s", which would thus have Venus' statue but Venus's tennis serve.  It seems illogical to restrict it to classical names, so I feel Cervantes' novels would also be acceptable.  Personally, I use 's in every case (so Jesus's writings) or avoid the problem by using the novels of Cervantes.

It seems common in U.S. usage to drop the second "s" even in non-classical names (and in nouns which are not names, see below), but this is not recommended by the The Columbia Guide to Standard American English here.


Words ending
in s


  • The waitress's apron
  • The boss's office
  • The business's customers
  • Both businesses' agreement

It seems common in U.S. usage to drop the final "s" (the waitress' apron), but this is illogical, does not accord with the pronunciation, and is not recommended by the Columbia Guide to Standard American English here or Strunk's The Elements of Style, which also says that to use the second s (Charles's) "is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office".


Non-living things


I have seen it suggested that non-living things cannot possess anything, so you can't say

  • the window's edge
  • the table's colour.

As "possessive" is merely another word for what grammarians call the genitive case, I can't see this argument has any virtue.  It's also quite acceptable to say the house whose roof is red.


No apostrophe


Why is there no apostrophe in

  • the sports car?

In this case sports is not a possessive – it's not the car of the sport, after all.  It's the same as tennis shoes (presumably no-one wants to write tenni's shoes because they can see there's no such thing as a tenni), which in turn is grammatically just the same as blue shoes.  They are shoes of type tennis, or of type blue, and so the car is of type sports.  These are adjectives, not possessive nouns.

Phrases like electrician's screwdriver or plumber's wrench are therefore problematic.  Is it a screwdriver of type electricians, or is it a screwdriver of the electrician, or a screwdriver of the electricians?  Depending on which you feel, you could write electricians screwdriver, electrician's screwdriver or electricians' screwdriver respectively.  I prefer the second, but I wouldn't say the others are wrong.

Hotel room and car door are interesting.  I might book a lot of hotel rooms, but say the hotel's rooms were tiny.  And I might have to buy a new car door if I left my car's door open in traffic.  The decision seems to rest on where the emphasis should be: a hotel room or car door stresses the room or door; a hotel's room or a car's door stresses the hotel or the car.

Other examples:

  • His Achilles heel


Titles


Titles of things don't usually need apostrophes, although it would not be wrong to use them.  It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a title and normal usage; other clues may be useful.  Is each word written with an initial capital letter, for example?

  • The Masters Tournament
  • The Land Rover Owners Club
  • The Hundred Years War

A careful writer will maybe want to distinguish between a Land Rover Owners Club (a club of that name) and a Land Rover owners' club (a club of Land Rover owners; we are not told if it has a special name, or what that name might be).  I also note that the Ford Motor Company does not put a hyphen in Land Rover, so that's how it should be written.


Best avoided


The Economist style guide says "Try to avoid using Lloyd's (the insurance market) as a possessive; it poses an insoluble problem". There is no way in English to make a possessive of a word that already contains an apostrophe. The same problem is posed by several other organisations' names, and if the problem can't be avoided, you must grit your teeth and treat them as if they are called Lloyd, Sainsbury, or McDonald:

  • McDonald's employment practices
  • Sainsbury's recruitment drive
  • Lloyd's current difficulties


Mother's Day


Established by Presidential proclamation in the United States, and spelt Mother's, so that's pretty much definitive for American usage.  For the rest of us, and for fathers, we have to decide whether it's a day to remember one's mother (Mother's Day), or a day on which people remember their mothers (Mothers' Day).  It seems unduly pedantic to depart from American usage, so I prefer Mother's Day, Father's Day, and so on.

George W Bush re-issued the proclamation in 2001, and there's plenty of background on the Web.


Master's degree


This degree indicates that the holder has reached the level of a master.  Thus

  • He has attained the level of a master: he has a master's degree.
  • They have all attained the level of a master: they now all have master's degrees.
  • She's just far too brainy: she has seventeen master's degrees.

You could argue that masters is adjectival (like the sports in sports car) and doesn't take an apostrophe, but because there is clearly the meaning of "the degree of a master", I'd prefer the apostrophe.


Missing letters


Most people know that an apostrophe can be used to indicate missing letters, as in can't and haven't; this only applies to words, though – abbreviations and acronyms don't use apostrophes to show the missing letters (it's USA not U'S'A', Nato or NATO not N'A'T'O'), so a compact disc has the forms

  • one CD
  • two CDs
  • the CD's price.

The possessive takes an apostrophe, the plural doesn't; to think the plural uses an apostrophe to indicate the missing letters in Disc is wrong.


Abbreviations


Although missing letters are indicated by an apostrophe in words like can't, abbreviations don't generally use apostrophes: an abbreviation of gentleman is gent.  The abbreviated form then gets treated like a word, so its plural is gents and its possessive is gent's. The plural can also form a possessive, gents'.

These are correct:

  • The gent's hat (the hat of the gent)
  • The gents' hats (the hats of the gents)
  • Gents (Gentlemen) – a lavatory sign, maybe.


Verbs


Verbs are doing words: I walked the dog, I sold the car, she thought he was wrong.  Although the version of the verb we use with he, she, and it usually ends in s, verbs never take apostrophes.  All these are wrong (to correct them, leave out the apostrophe):

  • Here come's Jimmy.
  • He want's to sell his graphics card.
  • When she sell's her car.
  • When he buy's her car.
  • He walk's the dog.

Note that some words can be used as nouns as well as verbs, and when used as nouns they could take apostrophes as normal.  These are correct (walks in the second is not a possessive, just a normal plural):

  • The walk's length was hard to calculate
  • The dog enjoys its walks


APS board


The following have been discussed on the discussion board of the Apostrophe Protection Society and these seem to me to be the best way of expressing them.  I present them here without explanation, although the reason I prefer the form given can often be found in the examples given on the rest of this page.  The first three are all captions for speakers in a TV programme.

  • Princess's Bodyguard
  • Trevor Rees-Jones's Lawyer
  • Head of Harrods Security
  • Pythagoras's Theorem
  • Archimedes' Principle
  • Tess's dog
  • SMS's (or SMSes or SMSs) as the plural of SMS
  • SOS's (or SOSes or SOSs) as the plural of SOS
  • CDs for sale
  • Men (as a lavatory sign)
  • Ladies (as a lavatory sign)
  • Children's Information Service (definitely not Childrens Information Service, but possibly Child Information Service by analogy with Child Guidance Service; in fact Childcare Information Service turned out to be what was wanted).
  • Professionals' Meeting (a type of case conference; Professionals Meeting was felt to be acceptable but not preferred).
  • Guy Fawkes Night
  • Guy Fawkes's plan
  • Cervantes's novel (but better avoided by rewriting)
  • Series (both singular and plural)
  • A Sainsbury's checkout operator (by analogy with A PC World checkout operator)
  • One of Sainsbury's checkout operators (but better avoided by rewriting)
  • Bhajis (plural of bhaji)
  • Baltis (plural of balti)
  • Mochas (plural of mocha)
  • Lattes (plural of latte)
  • Cappuccinos (plural of cappuccino)
  • Panini (both singular and plural)
  • Crostini (both singular and plural)
  • Speakers Bureau (disputed)
  • Diabetes Week

The following were felt to be acceptable, but maybe other ways might be preferred. (See other examples here.)

  • Your 2's look like your 7's
  • There are two a's in accommodation
  • Mind your p's and q's
  • Dot your i's and cross your t's

No consensus has yet emerged on what the best English plural might be for:

  • Bruschetta (I favour bruschetta or bruschettas as the plural)
  • Latte (I favour lattes)
  • Antipasto (I favour antipastos)

This interesting message was posted on the APS board by Bob Hale.

(Quote starts)

It is perfectly possible to use a singular noun to modify another:

  • bedroom curtains
  • Dr Martens boots (His name was Dr Martens, so it's singular)
  • bathroom suite

and so on.

Are there any well known and inarguable instances of plural noun modifiers?  Sports car, arms race, clothes pegs, Careers Information Officer spring to mind.

So in principle there is nothing to stop a plural noun being used as a modifying adjective.

Now let's go back to the old favourite point of extreme contention: electricians pliers - with or without an apostrophe.

I would contend that the following three phrases are all legitimate and all have different meanings.

  • John's electrician's pliers.  (The pliers belonging to John's electrician.)
  • John's electricians' pliers.  (The pliers belonging to John's electricians.)
  • John's electricians pliers.  (The electricians pliers belonging to John.)

(Quote ends)

Then "Spooky" added this:

(Quote starts)

Adding to this line of argument take an old example of mine from various constitutions:

  • Education Officer
  • Women's Officer
  • Computer Rep
  • Returners(') Rep

How about Accounts Department? It certainly isn't the department belonging to accounts but to the firm - here accounts is clearly acting as an adjective.

I can see where an apostrophe would go in Returners' Rep and Women's Officer but if this is the case, why not Education's Officer or Computer's Rep?

(Quote ends)

 


Thanks

Many thanks to all the people who have posted questions and answers at the discussion board of the "Apostrophe Protection Society"; it was reading that board that gave me the idea that a page of examples would be useful.  The "discuss" link to the left takes you there.
 

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