Reference > Usage > American Heritage® Book of English Usage > 8. Word Formation. b. Forming Possessives
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The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.
A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English.  1996.

8. Word Formation

b. Forming Possessives
 


IN English the possessive case is used to show not only simple possession but also a variety of other relationships between the noun marked for possession and the noun that follows:
 John’s car the senator’s aide (possession or belonging)
 the tide’s ebbing, Amy’s presentation (subject of an action)
 the company’s owners, the hero’s betrayal (object of an action)
 learner’s dictionary, a women’s college (description or type)
 my father’s gentleness, the character’s greed (attribute)
 the bird’s wing, the book’s cover (a constituent part)
 Beethoven’s symphonies, grandmother’s letter (origin)
 a day’s journey, an arm’s length (measure or amount)
   1
  Following are the few basic rules for forming the possessive case in English.   2
  The possessive case of a singular noun is formed by adding -’s: one’s home, by day’s end, our family’s pet, the witness’s testimony, a fox’s habitat, the knife’s edge. Note that although some people use just the apostrophe after singular nouns ending in s (the witness’ testimony, Burns’ poetry), the -’s is generally preferred because it more accurately reflects the modern pronunciation of these forms. However, in a few cases where the -’s is not pronounced, it is usual to add just the apostrophe: for righteousness’ (appearance’) sake.   3
  The possessive case of a plural noun ending in -s is formed by adding just an apostrophe: the doctors’ recommendations, the glasses’ rims, the flies’ buzzing noises. However, when the plural noun does not end in -s, form the possessive by adding -’s: children’s clothes.   4
  The possessive case of most proper nouns is formed according to the rules for common nouns: (singular) Eliot’s novels, Yeats’s poetry, Dostoyevsky’s biography, Velázquez’s paintings; (plural) the McCarthys’ and the Williamses’ parties, the Schwartzes’ trip. By convention, however, certain proper nouns ending in s form the possessive by adding just the apostrophe since adding -’s would make the pronunciation difficult or awkward: Jesus’ teachings, Moses’ children, Achilles’ heel Hercules’ strength, Ramses’ reign, Xerxes’ conquest.   5
  For compound names or titles that form short phrases, add the -’s or apostrophe to the final element: the King of Belgium’s birthday, Saint Francis of Assisi’s life, the governor of New York’s speech. Long phrases such as the man we met on the train’s sister should be avoided in writing. Reword them using of: the sister of the man we met on the train.   6
  When two or more people or things possess something jointly, add the -’s or apostrophe to the last element only: Martha and Dan’s house. However, when two or more people or things possess something separately, add the -’s or apostrophe to each element: the Smiths’ and the Joneses’ houses are for sale.   7


The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
 
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