Grammatical rules create polarizing reactions. Just what is the difference between plural and possessive s? When should there be an apostrophe? Have I written this in plural or possessive form?
One camp, firmly mounted high on a bucking grammatical steed, will cite chapter and verse from The Elements of Style the rule to be followed. The same group holds up dog-eared copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation in an effort to show us the way toward proper possessives.
Another camp works to avoid the problem altogether—writing and rewriting until the potential transgression is buried under a pile of keystrokes and Google searches.
But if you’re going to say it, you need to say it correctly.
Punctuation and grammar matter because proper grammar leads to a clear message. Knowing how to write plurals and possessives accurately is key.
Knowing the Difference between Plural and Possessive Forms
One grammar issue that often trips up even veteran scribes—whether firing off an office email of crafting that perfectly compelling brief—is the difference between plural and possessive s.
And don’t even bring up the case where a word already ends in s! Is it “the Kansas’ Statute” as Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion or is “the Kansas’s Statute as former Judge David Souter wrote in the dissent”?
How is a writer supposed to know the difference?
What’s What? Identifying the Difference between Plural and Possessive Forms: The Plural Noun
Plural means more than one. For many words in English, adding an s at the end creates the plural form. For example, add an s to “officer” and you create “officers.”
Some words have an irregular plural form—they don’t form the plural by adding s. So, for example, there are deer, mice, and oxen, and then there’s “sheep” (which is both singular and plural—what’s with the animal kingdom?)
Accurate writing starts with understanding the difference between the plural and possessive forms.
The bottom line is this: if you’re just using a word in its plural form—with no showing of possession or ownership—that troublemaking apostrophe should be nowhere in sight. Except for weird (irregular) words like those listed above, the friendly s can do the job all by itself.
Who Owns or Has It? The Singular Possessive Form
The possessive form of a noun shows who owns or has custody of a thing. This is where we introduce the apostrophe.
Possessives are generally formed by adding an apostrophe s (’s) to a word. The formula is [noun] + [’] + s.
For singular nouns, it’s simple: the apostrophe goes before the s.
- International Apostrophe Day was cancelled after 2015 because of the apostrophe’s rampant misbehavior.
See how that works? It was the misbehavior of the apostrophe that was at issue, and to show that we used an apostrophe s (’s) after the word “apostrophe.”
(We’re just kidding about the holiday’s cancellation, by the way, although we really didn’t find any references to the holiday after 2015.)
Let’s try another one.
- The dog’s shame collar allowed him to scoop up my entire hamburger when I wasn’t looking.
The collar owned or (begrudgingly) worn by the dog facilitated theft. Clever dog!
But what if the singular noun already ends in an s? You can’t go wrong by following the same rule—add the apostrophe s (’s) at the end of the word.
- The class’s math teacher showed a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to illustrate syllogisms.
(Yes, that really happened.) Although following the formula works, you will find disagreement exists about whether to add that second s. As illustrated above, the dispute goes all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, where the majority and dissent in Kansas v. Marsh disagree on more than just the law.
Showing Common Ownership by More Than One
Now let’s turn to the more confusing case of plural possessives. The plural possessive is used to show ownership or custody by more than one. “The justices’ library” shows that all of the justices share a single library.
The plural possessive is trickier because the possessive form of a word often has an s at the end already. How do you know where to put the apostrophe when the word already ends in s? Before the s? After the s? Throw in a second s for good measure?
As a rule, we’re to address the plural first and THEN the possessive. In other words, figure out what the word is first, and then add the apostrophe and the s.
If the plural already ends in s, you can just add the apostrophe s (’s) after that.
- At the prom, the students’s chaperones were surprised when everyone began dancing the jitterbug in shark suits.
- James’s peach could house an entire family.
Easy enough, although it’s also acceptable not to add the s in that case:
- At the prom, the students’ chaperones were surprised when everyone began dancing the jitterbug in shark suits.
Yes, you get a choice here, which doesn’t often happen in grammar and punctuation rules.
But how do you show possession with those weird plural words that don’t end in s? To work through that, let’s go back to the animal kingdom (which, as we all know, can include children).
The formula remains the same: [noun] + [’] + s.
- The children’s room had been slimed despite the rule against mixing the goo in the house.
- The sheep’s soccer match was interrupted when Timmy dropped his binky on the field.
- The men’s department was devoid of skirts but for the kilts in the Scottish section.
Just add the apostrophe s (’s), and you’re good to go.
A Final Wrench in the Monkey Works: Possessive Pronouns
Keeping straight whether you’re writing a plural or possessive form or even (gasp!) both really is manageable—until you throw in pronouns.
The first troublemaker is “it”—knowing when to use “its” versus “it’s.”
This is where the English grammar gods threw us a curve. Because pronouns can be contractions—a mash-up of two words glued together with an apostrophe—you do not use an apostrophe to show possession with pronouns.
That means that “it’s” is not possessive but, instead, the contraction for “it is.” The possessive form is “its.”
And these words do not exist in the English language: your’, your’s. Use an apostrophe with “you” only to show the contraction “you’re.” The possessive form is just “your.”
Putting the Difference between Plural and Possessive Forms into Action
Are there exceptions to these rules? Quite possibly, but this blog should offer some helpful guidance and give you a great starting point to work through the difference between plural and possessive forms and how to write them. Determining how to write possessives, plurals, or plural possessives can be a little tricky, but, by remembering a few rules and not getting stressed over where to place an apostrophe, you should be just fine.