Apostrophe 's'/Possessives

By Peter Hulm

Let's start with G.V. Carey, widely considered an authority because his short manual on punctuation appeared in Penguin. Mind the Stop dates back to 1939 but was reprinted at least as late as 1971. Carey declares about apostrophes and possessives: "Would that all stops gave so little trouble!" (p84).

Unfortunately, he seems to miss all the problems editors today have with these modifiers. His only comment: "It seems hardly necessary to state that [the apostrophe] precedes the 's' of the possessive case in singular words (and plurals that do not end in 's') [e.g. e.g. women's] and follows it in plurals that end in 's' (at his mother's knee, The Women's Institute, The Mothers' Union)." (p83-4).

Yet in 1952 G.H. Vallins, another paperback star but one who seems to be worthy of general admiration, was already noting a different approach::

"There is a laudable tendency in modern usage to omit the apostrophe, especially in plural nouns, where the nouns are adjectival without any real possessive sense [and where, in fact, the sense is not 'of' + noun but 'for' + noun]: Womens Institute, Boys School, Students Union, Miners Federation' ( Good English: How to Write It Library Edition, 1952, Pan 1956, p126). The 'Fowler' for the post-war era. Eric Partridge, quotes Vallins with obvious approval in You Have a Point There (1953: 160).

Bill Bryson, one of the newer breed of grammar doctors, goes dogmatically in the other direction: "Many writers who would never think of omitting the apostrophe in 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work' often do exactly that when the unit of measure is increased. Consider 'Laker gets further 20 days credit' ( Times headline), 'Mr Taranto, who had 30 years service with the company...' ( The New York Times ). Both 'days' and 'years' should carry an apostrophe. Alternatively we could insert an 'of' after the time elements ('30 days of credit', '19 years of service'). One or the other is necessary." (Bill Bryson, 1984/1987, Dictionary of Troublesome Words ,p177-8).

I'd just note here that I understood (according to The Economist Style Guide ) it should always be The Times (of London) and the New York Times (i.e. without the italicized The).

To go back to possessives, my favourite style guide, Roy H. Copperud's American Usage and Style, The Consensus, drawing on a variety of 'authorities', has a 1.5-page summary of views on possessives. One section deals with "false possessives" (which is what Vallins was talking about). Copperud says: "Modifiers ending in s are often wrongly constrained as possessives and given apostrophes they should not have: a General Motors scholarship (not Motors' ), United States (not States' ) citizen. The use of the appositive in such phrases as five months' probation, six weeks' vacation is considered necessary by one critic, but considered optional by two others" (p298). So there is no agreement across the board.

But what is the possessive for Moses, or Keats? The jury is out. Copperud comments: "Fowler seems ambiguous on this point" (p298).

I personally favour putting in the possessive wherever you can in such cases, Keats's (where you have to make an effort to pronounce the apostrophied s) seems to me better than Keats' (with its elided consonant).

Carey, it seems, saw no problems with the Jones's against the Joneses, Earls Court, Regents Park, St James's Park, mens clothing, MP's, V.I.P.'s, Euripides' plays, Jesus' apostles, Harpers Ferry, Hudson's Bay Company, Barclays Bank, Pears soap, or Nostrodamus' prophesis. Vallins, always a sensible voice, comments: "The apostrophe is almost as big a nuisance as quotation marks. But it has established itself in English, and there seems to be no way of our getting rid of it now" (p126).

To turn to a working novelist, Kingsley Amis declared in 1997: "The rules governing the use of this vexing little mark are evidently hard to master, and if you have trouble with them or it after the age of fourteen or so, the chances are that you will always be liable to error in the matter." (1997, 1998/p14). Amis notes the apostrophe to mark ordinary plurals (carrot's) is known as a 'greengrocer's apostrophe' and, like me, prefers 'the 1990s' to 'the 1990's'. He also notes 'for Jesus' sake' and 'Keats' poems' but advises: "When in doubt always write the fuller version" (p15). He suggests we should also recognise the differences between He is staying at Jones's, He is staying with the Joneses, and He is staying at the Joneses' .

By contrast, compare Felici's "The Desktop Style Guide" (1991): "Use apostrophes to form the plurals of abbreviations and single letters: 'Mind your p's and q's' [I agree]. 'M.D.'s and R.N.'s' [no]." (p76).

Harry Shaw (1963) states: "One-syllable proper names ending in 's' or an 's' sound add an apostrophe and 's': Keats's poems; Jones's books; Marx's theories. In words of more than one syllable ending in 's' or an 's' sound add an apostrophe only: Themistocles' strategy, Aristophanes' plays, Berlioz' compositions." (p38). This rule is cited by Bloomsbury (1988), though says the omission is only "frequent" and links the second part with names of three or more syllables (p219). It also gives both versions for Nostrodamus and rhinoceros, but as a general recommendation it seems sound.

Bloomsbury further states: "It should be 50 years' service, a six months' stay in America" (p17) but allows that "with well-known commercial organizations and products the tendency is now to drop the apostrophe" (p17). Strangely, it doesn't list the most famous in the UK: Marks and Spencers (it's in the OC, p75). Just to confuse things, Bloomsbury notes: "The apostrophe is also sometimes used for the plural some abbreviations (MP's), but this usage is becoming less frequent (1988,p17). It also points out: "Apostrophes are no longer generally used for shortened forms that are in general use: flu, phone, photo, plane." (p17). It takes a magnificent insouciance to think that all readers will be able to judge for themselves what is in general use.

Vallins may be relatively relaxed but he insists here: "It is important to remember that if a singular noun ends in 's', the apostrophe 's' is nevertheless added to it, following the normal rule: Dickens's, not Dickens' (which looks like a plural) and certainly not Dicken's (which would mean 'of Dicken'). Similarly, Keats's, not Keats', and certainly not Keat's. Only classical names ending in 's' (Brutus, Perseus, Thucydides) tend to break this rule; but it is better, in practice, to keep the rule intact and write 'of Brutus'" etc. (p125-6). Butcher (1992) prescribes "Bridges', Moses', but James's, Thomas's" (p155) in line with Hart's Rules (39th edn., p31).

Shaw observes that putting apostrophes in idiomatic expressions such as 'a day's wait', 'an hour's delay' or 'twenty cents' worth' is required though actual possession is not clearly indicated. Some double possessives also require an apostrophe and 'of', he adds: "a book of my friend's; a brother of Jane's, a nephew of my cousin's" (p39).

How about joint possession?'Wolcott and Brown's store; a soldiers and sailors' home' -- everyone agrees this is the way to do it, omit the apostrophe in the first term. But what about alternative possession? Shaw recommends: 'Wilson's or Eisenhower's or Kennedy's administration, soldiers' and sailors' uniforms, Bob's and Jim's plans' (p39). He also weirdly, to me, says one should apostrophize (apostrophate? apostrophiate?) this: 'Anyone's leaving early will be penalized' (p39). Surely the person not the act is penalized. Shaw and Partridge both note 'conscience' sake' (Partridge, p157; Shaw, p38).

Partridge also picks up The Oxford English Dictionary 's explanation: the apostrophe 'originally marked the omission of an 'e' in writing [...]; it was gradually ...extended to all possessives, even where 'e' had not previously been written, as in 'man's', 'children's', 'conscience' sake'. This was not yet established in 1725' (cited on p157). On the next page, however, he points to "endurance's sake" and "Silence's chill vaccum" and later speaks out against "genitival cacophonies" (p159) praising the more modern "a shepherdess's crook" and "a hostess's privilege" against the earlier common form of "a shepherdess' crook, a hostess' privilege" (p159). "Webster's set of rules for Classical nouns is, in its way, admirable -- but arbitrary and no longer generally applicable" (p157).

The Oxford Companion notes "a respectable tradition (17-19c.) of using the apostrophe for noun plurals, especially in loan words ending in a vowel" (p75). This "apostrophe of plurality" survives with abbreviations such as V.I.P.'s ("although forms such as VIPs are now widespread") and decade dates ("although such apostrophe-free forms as 'the 1980s' are widespread, as are such truncations as 'the '80s, the form 'the '80's being unlikely") and in "keeping up with the Jones's "as opposed to 'the Joneses', a form that is also common" (p75).

The OC also notes that only four percent of the possessives in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare (1623) had them (p75). Presumably the authority is Greta D. Little, author of 'The Ambivalent Apostrophe', in "English Today", 8 Oct. 1986. She also says: "As late as 1794 Washington Irving used apostrophes in only 38% of the possessives in his person correspondence." (OC, p75). The OC comments: "Difficulties and inconsistencies are as common in the 1990s as in earlier times, especially with proper nouns" (p75).

Copperud's survey of usage experts with regard to the possessive form for inanimate things ('the water's temperature') found these forms "are described as standard by one critic and criticized as sometimes infelicitous by two, and two others disapprove of them altogether" (p298). It's hard to understand why such a majority of experts don't like the practice, given the extra convenience it provides for writers.

Fowler/Gowers offer another possessive puzzle without a solution: "In 'The Times''s opinion" (p467).

Finally, because I cannot imagine anyone actually doing this, I repeat the Bloomsbury comment on 'someone else's': "Purists have maintained that as 'else' is not a noun or pronoun it cannot take an apostrophe, and have used the form 'someone's else', but 'someone else's' is now generally acceptable" (p17). It seems hard to believe, but the original concern comes from Fowler/Gowers (1926/83, p154).


I find it easier to give sources a short name and then explain the reference here (easier to alphabetize). I'm also in favour of giving the ISBN rather than the place of publication (often many places these days) but this has the drawback that the UN often does not seek ISBN numbers for its works.

Amis - Kingsley Amis (1997) The King's English (Penguin 1998).

Bloomsbury - Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (1988) edited by Martin H. Manser.

Bryson - Bill Bryson (1984/1987) Dictionary of Troublesome Words

Butcher - Judith Butcher (1992) Copy-editing: the Cambridge handbook, 3rd edition.

Copperud - Roy H. Copperud American Usage and Style, The Consensus.

Crystal - David Crystal (1984) Who cares about English usage?, Penguin.

Economist - The Economist Style Guide

Felici - James Felici (1991) The Desktop Style Guide, Bantam.

Fowler/Gowers - H.W. Fowler (1926) A dictionary of modern English usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, 1983).

OC - The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), edited by Tom McArthur.

ODWE - Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1994, CD-ROM Oxford Reference Shelf).

OM - The Oxford Modern English Dictionary (1992).

ORS -Oxford Reference Shelf (1994), CD-ROM.

POD - Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1994/ORS)

Shaw - Harry Shaw (1963) Punctuate It[sic] Right!, Barnes and Noble.

UN - United Nations Editorial Manual (1983): Department of Conference Services ST/DCS/2, Sales No. E. 83.I.16. It was prepared by Anna May Nielsen, a consultant.

Vallins - G.H. Vallins (1951) Good English: how to write it, Pan (1956, revised).

WHO - WHO Editorial Style Manual (1993).