Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms(Spelling)
by Peter Moylan PRONOUNS The ONLY personal possessive pronoun with an apostrophe is "one's". .---------------------------------------------------------------------. | The words "his", "its", "whose", "their" do NOT contain apostrophes. | | Nor do words like "hers", "ours", "yours", "theirs". | | (Would you say "mi'ne"?) | '----------------------------------------------------------------------' The forms "it's", "they're", and "who's" are contractions for "it is" (or "it has"), "they are", and "who is" (or "who has") respectively. They have nothing to do with possessive pronouns. The apostrophe does occur in the possessive case of indefinite pronouns ("anybody's", "someone's", and so on). NOUNS 1. The standard rule: Use 's for the singular possessive, and a bare apostrophe after the plural suffix -s or -es for the plural possessive. For example: Singular Plural Nominative dog dogs Possessive dog's dogs' 2. Nouns ending with an [s] or [z] sound (this includes words ending in "x", "ce", and similar examples): The plural suffix is -es rather than -s (unless there's already an "e" at the end, as in the "-ce" words), but otherwise the rule is the same as above: Singular Plural Nominative class classes Possessive class's classes' (The possessive plural is what is wanted in "the Joneses'". This is short for "the Joneses' house", which is not "the Jones's house".) There are, however, examples where the singular possessive suffix is a bare apostrophe: Singular Plural Nominative patience patiences Possessive patience' patiences' (In most such examples, the plural is rarely used.) For nouns in this category, many people would consider the 's suffix and the bare apostrophe to be acceptable alternatives. The rules listed below may be taken as "most common practice", but they are not absolute. A. The 's suffix is preferred for one-syllable words (grass's) or where the final syllable has a primary or secondary stress (collapse's); B. The bare apostrophe is preferred: - for words ending in -nce (stance'); - for many classical names (Aristophanes', Jesus', Moses'); - where the juxtaposition of two or more [s] sounds would cause an awkwardness in pronunciation (thesis'). C. Usage is divided in the situation where the final [s] or [z] sound falls in an unstressed syllable (octopus'/octopus's, phoenix's/phoenix', and so on). The question of which suffix is correct arises less often than one might imagine. Instead of saying "the crisis' start" or "the crisis's start", most native speakers of English would say "the start of the crisis", thus avoiding the problem. 3. Plurals not ending in s: Use 's for the possessive plural (men's, people's, sheep's). HISTORY For those who want to know where the apostrophe came from, here is how it probably happened. Some of this is well documented, some is guesswork on my part. Back in the days when English had many more inflections than it now has, the most common suffix for the genitive singular was -es. (There were several noun declensions, so that not all nouns fitted this pattern; but this could be considered to be the "most regular" case.) For example: mann (=man), mannes (=of the man). Over time there developed a tendency to stop pronouncing the unstressed "e", so that "mannes" became "mann's". The apostrophe stands for the omitted letter. (Modern German still has -es as the genitive suffix for many nouns. The Germans did not stop pronouncing their unstressed "e"s, so the case suffix is still written as -es.) Pronouns were also inflected, but not in the same way. (They were all fairly irregular, as they still are today.) The genitive form of "hit" (=it) was "his" (=its). As "his" evolved into "its", there was no "e" to drop, therefore no logical reason to insert an apostrophe. The "its" and "it's" forms did coexist in the 17th and early 18th century, but today the "its" form is considered to be the only correct spelling. Plural nouns are harder to explain. The most common genitive plural inflection was -a, which is quite unrelated to our modern -s'. My best guess is that most of the old plural suffixes were replaced by -s under the influence of French; and that subsequently the rules for forming singular possessives were extended to the plurals. If this is what happened, then a hypothetical -s's plural possessive suffix would immediately collapse to -s', in the same way as for many singular nouns ending in "s". There was in any case a long period where spelling was a lot less standardized than it is today, so one should not think in terms of any sort of "standard rule" existing during the transitional period. NOTE FOR NON-ENGLISH-SPEAKERS The apostrophe in these cases normally has no effect on pronunciation. Thus dogs, dog's, and dogs' all sound the same. The exception is where the apostrophe separates two "s"s, and then it is pronounced as an unstressed schwa. Thus class's, classes, and classes' are all pronounced as /klA:s@z/. For nouns where there is some difference of opinion over whether the possessive suffix should be -'s or a bare apostrophe (that is, those nouns where a final unstressed syllable ends with an [s] or [z] sound) some native speakers use a lengthened final consonant intermediate between /z/ and /z@z/. This is, however, a fine and almost inaudible distinction. OTHER COMMENTS One occasionally hears that "John's dog" is an abbreviation for "John his dog". It is more likely that the derivation went in the opposite direction, i.e.: Johnes hund => John's hound => Johnny's dog => John 'is dog with the "John his dog" form coming into use only briefly before disappearing from modern English. Using an apostrophe in a plural which is not a possessive form is almost never recommended by prescriptivists. The only situation where it is recommended is where visual confusion would otherwise result, as for example in the sentence "Mind your p's and q's". In forms like "the 1980s" or "two CPUs", apostrophes are not recommended. It is correct to use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters, in contractions like "aren't", "isn't", "it's" (= it is or it has). Be careful in these cases to put the apostrophe in the correct place. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter(s); it does not replace the space between words.
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