The ’S Problem
One reason that the apostrophe “s” at the end of a word is such a problem is that the s suffix may be added to a word for a variety of reasons, and only two (of five) reasons for adding the s call for an apostrophe. Some writers forget to use apostrophes where they are needed. Others use apostrophes where they are not needed. Both instances constitute errors that may unnerve your teacher.
If a subject and a verb are combined as a contraction using the verb is or has, the contracted form of the verb will appear as ’s:
It’s been a long winter. (It has. . . ) He’s a nice guy. (He is. . .) Mary’s not going with us. (Mary is. . .) Who’s responsible for this mess? (Who is. . . )
You need to remember to use the apostrophe in these expressions so that you use them correctly in informal writing, but in formal essays you should avoid using contractions whenever possible. Some audiences will not be bothered by them, but others will be. Hardly anyone will be bothered if there are no contractions.
In addition to the contracted form of is or has, we add the suffix s to root words for four different reasons. Only the fourth reason stated below requires the use of an apostrophe before or after s.
1. We add s to a noun to make it plual:
a reason two reasons
2. We add s to a verb to show that the subject is third person singular:
I take we take
you take you (all) take
he, she, it takes they take
Mary, the dog takes
3. We add s to some pronouns to form the possessive:
This book is hers. These stories are theirs. The car is not ours.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Note: No Apostrophes Are Used In Any of the Above Examples.
4. We add s to nouns to make them possessive. We use an apostrophe with the s suffix in forming the possessive case of a noun. Except for contractions, this is the only case in which we use an apostrophe with the added s.
That is Stephen’s ball.
Angela’s bulldozer is in the driveway.
The Siamese cats hate apostrophes.
The following procedures will help you overcome your problems with apostrophes. Proofread once for apostrophes only. Stop at each word that has an s on the end, and ask yourself this series of questions:
1. Is the s added to the word? (Some words are just spelled with an s on the end). If the answer is “no,” go on with your proofreading. If the answer is “yes,” continue to ask questions.
2. Is the word a noun? If the answer is “no,” you can stop here. Unless the word is a noun, it will not need an apostrophe with the s. If the answer is “yes,” continue to step 3. Watch for pronouns when performing this step. Words like ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘it,’ ‘they,’ and ‘her’ may pose a tricky problem. Being nouns, they still apply to the rule, but in some cases require a word change.
Did you find Joey’s exam? This exam is his.
3. Is the s added to form the possessive? If the answer is “no,” you are finished with the word. It will not need an apostrophe. Suppose you are not sure about whether or not the word is possessive. If you have an s suffix, you will know the word is possessive if:
a. The root word is singular. (Look for clues such as a, an, this, that; another clue is to see if singular verb forms follow the noun).
b. The root word is an irregular plural that is not formed by adding s: men, women, children, etc.
c. The word with the s suffix modifies a noun. (Possessives function as adjectives in a sentence.)
The foxes hole was very small. Foxes modifies hole, and therefore the sentence should be changed to: The foxes’ hole was very small.
Read the s word, following it with the question “what?”
Example: The publics determination to keep spending has been underestimated.
Ask yourself, “The publics what?” If the sentence contains an answer, the s word is possessive and gets an apostrophe. In this example, the word “determination” answers the question, so the word publics should be public’s.
4. Where does the apostrophe go? That’s simple. Look at the word ending before you make the word possessive. Is there already an s there? If not add, ’s. If so, just add an apostrophe after the s that is already there. It doesn’t matter why the s is there; the word may have an s-formed plural, or it may just be spelled that way. The rule applies in either case.
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This page last updated on 4/08/03