possessives

  • Plural nouns not ending in s: Add ‘s: the alumni’s contributions, women’s rights.
  • Plural nouns ending in s: Add only an apostrophe: the churches’ needs, the girls’ toys, the horses’ food, the ships’ wake, states’ rights, the VIPs’ entrance.
  • Nouns plural in form, singular in meaning: Add only an apostrophe: mathematics’ rules, measles’ effects. (Note: See inanimate objects below.) Apply the same principle when a plural word occurs in the formal name of a singular entity: General Motors’ profits, the United States’ wealth.
  • Nouns the same in singular and plural: Treat them the same as plurals, even if the meaning is singular: one corps’ location, the two deer’s tracks, the lone moose’s antlers.
  • Singular nouns not ending in s: Add ‘s: the church’s needs, the girl’s toys, the horse’s food, the ship’s route, the VIP’s seat.
  • Singular nouns ending in s sounds: (Such as ce, x, and z) Always use ‘s if the word does not end in the letter s: Butz’s policies, the fox’s den, the justice’s verdict, Marx’s theories, the prince’s life, Xerox’s profits.
  • Singular common nouns ending in s: Add ‘s unless the next word begins with s: the hostess’s invitation, the hostess’ seat; the witness’s answer, the witness’ story.
  • Singular proper names ending in s: Use ‘s: Achilles’s heel, Agnes’s book, Ceres’s rites, Descartes’s theories, Dickens’s novels, Euripides’s dramas, Hercules’s labors, Jesus’s life, Jules’s seat, Kansas’s schools, Moses’s law, Socrates’s life, Tennessee Williams’s plays, Xerxes’s armies. (Note: This breaks with AP style.)
  • Special expressions: The following exceptions to the general rule for words not ending in s apply to words that end in an s sound and are followed by a word that begins with s: for appearance’ sake, for conscience’ sake, for goodness’ sake. Use ‘s otherwise: the appearance’s cost, my conscience’s voice.
  • Pronouns: Personal interrogative and relative pronouns have separate forms for the possessive. None involve an apostrophe: mine, ours, your, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose. Note: If you are using an apostrophe with a pronoun, always double-check to be sure that the meaning calls for a contraction: you’re, it’s, there’s, who’s. Follow the rules listed above in forming the possessives of other pronouns: another’s idea, others’ plans, someone’s guess. Respecting someone’s self identification means using the gender pronouns they most identify with. It’s a good practice to ask which pronouns a person uses.
    See GLAAD Style Guide.
  • Compound words: Applying the rules above, add an apostrophe or ‘s to the word closest to the object possessed: the major general’s decision, the major generals’ decisions, the attorney general’s request, the attorneys general’s request. See plurals. Also note: anyone else’s attitude, John Adams Jr.’s father, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania’s motion. Whenever practical, however, recast the phrase to avoid ambiguity: the motion by Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.
  • Joint possession, individual possession: Use a possessive form after only the last word if ownership is joint: Fred and Sylvia’s apartment, Fred and Sylvia’s stocks. Use a possessive form after both words if the objects are individually owned: Fred’s and Sylvia’s books.
  • Descriptive phrases: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense: citizens band radio, a Cincinnati Reds infielder, a teachers college, a Teamsters request, a writers guide. Note: The apostrophe usually is not used if “for” or “by” rather than “of” would be appropriate in the longer form: a radio band for citizens, a college for teachers, a guide for writers, a request by the Teamsters. An ‘s is required, however, when a term involves a plural word that does not end in s: a children’s hospital, a people’s republic, the Young Men’s Christian Association.
  • Descriptive names: Some governmental, corporate and institutional organizations with a descriptive word in their names use an apostrophe; some do not. Follow the user’s practice: Actors’ Equity, Diners Club, Ladies’ Home Journal, the National Governors Association.
  • Quasi possessives: Follow the rules above in composing the possessive form of words that occur in such phrases as a day’s pay, two weeks’ vacation, three days’ work, your money’s worth. Frequently, however, a hyphenated form is clearer: a two-week vacation, a three-day job.
  • Double possessive: Two conditions must apply for a double possessive—a phrase such as a friend of John’s—to occur: 1. The word after “of” must refer to an animate object, and 2. The word before “of” must involve only a portion of the animate object’s possessions. Otherwise, do not use the possessive form of the word after “of”: The friends of John Adams mourned his death.(All the friends were involved.) He is a friend of the college. (Not college’s, because college is inanimate.) Note: This construction occurs most often, and quite naturally, with the possessive forms of personal pronouns: He is a friend of mine.
  • Inanimate objects: There is no blanket rule against creating a possessive form for an inanimate object, particularly if the object is treated in a personified sense. See some of the earlier examples, and note these: death’s call, the wind’s murmur. In general, however, avoid excessive personalization of inanimate objects, and give preference to an “of” construction when it fits the makeup of the sentence. For example, the earlier references to mathematics’ rules and measles’ effects would better be phrased: the rules of mathematics, the effects of measles.
  • VCU and its schools: Avoid writing VCUarts and its department names with apostrophes. Alternate constructions are helpful: A new project by VCUarts; The first Painting + Printmaking class of the semester.
    See Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, VCU School of the Arts.
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