Something I notice a lot in my editing work is how often my clients have problems with possessives, especially when plurals are involved. You know, like, how do you tell if you’re supposed to write: “the cat’s whiskers” or “the cats’ whiskers”? Many of my clients feel intimidated by English grammar texts, thinking they’re too complicated to be understood, and so when they need to write about a gaggle of old ladies having tea in the garden, they don’t look in a grammar text before they write: “All the lady’s tea was served with crumpets.” When they need to write about the many chickens being fed by the women in Bolivia, they write: “The women scattered the chicken’s feed on the dusty earth.” And they look like amateurs.
You don’t want to look like an amateur, do you? I didn’t think so.
I am going to explain this subject using examples and no real technical jargon, so don’t be nervous. You CAN understand this! 🙂
THE SINGULAR NOUN
Let’s start with something SIMPLE: the singular noun. A noun is described as “a person, place, or thing.” The word “cat” is a singular noun because it represents one thing, a single creature. When we read: “The cat’s water bowl is empty,” we know we are reading about one creature (a cat) which possesses something (a bowl). How do we know that the bowl belongs to the cat? Because the singular noun (cat) has an apostrophe at the end, followed by an “s” (cat‘s). The word we see BEFORE that apostrophe tells us that we are dealing with a single cat, and the apostrophe and “s” at the end of the word tell us he owns something–in this case, a water bowl that just happens to be empty. The “bowl” is also a singular noun, but it is not important to our discussion of grammar. It would be important in a discussion of animal husbandry and morality (as some human has thoughtlessly allowed his cat’s water bowl to go dry), but for now we are only concerned with the nouns in this sentence that “possess” something, okay? Okay.
How about this: “The boy’s nose is runny.” There is only one boy with one disgusting little nose. The word “boy” is a singular noun, and to indicate the boy owns (or possesses) this particularly wet little nose, the writer adds an apostrophe after the singular noun (boy), and then adds an “s” after the apostrophe (boy‘s) to show the boy owns that nose. The word that we see BEFORE the apostrophe is a singular noun–one boy. One boy who needs a tissue quick, before he uses his shirt sleeve.
WHAT ABOUT MAKING PLURAL NOUNS POSSESSIVE?
This is where my clients have the most trouble. They almost never get this right, but it’s actually very simple to do this correctly. Take the word “girls,”for instance. The word “girls” means “more than one girl.” The word “girls” is a plural noun. It is a word that is made plural by adding an “s” to the end of its singular form (girl). Other words that are made plural by adding an “s” to the end of their singular form are: gardeners, pilots, brains, pimples, and toes. We all understand that. But how do we make plural words indicate possession? By adding an apostrophe AFTER the very “s” which has made those words plural. So, we write, “The girls‘ shoes were arranged neatly in the front hallway.” Many girls have taken off their shoes and those shoes have been arranged neatly in the front hallway. You can also write, “The girls‘ mother placed their shoes in the front hallway” if you are talking about more than one girl, and those girls happen to be sisters and so have one mother. The word BEFORE the apostrophe is a plural noun: girls. That’s what you MUST remember! If all the girls own something, whether it be the same thing (“The girls’ mother…”) or different things that are similar (“The girls’ shoes…”) then the writer writes out the plural noun (girls) and adds an apostrophe after that last “s” there, the “s” which has made the word plural (girls‘) and he has signaled us that there is more than one girl being referred to in the sentence.
Let’s try this with other nouns, both singular and plural.
One pig: “The pig‘s feet are muddy.”
More than one pig: “The pigs‘ feet are muddy.”
One boy: “The boy‘s baseball cap is white.”
More than one boy: “The boys‘ baseball caps are blue.”
Many girls possessing many dresses? “The girls‘ dresses dried on the clothes line.”
One dog possessing one bone: “The dog‘s bone had been kicked under the couch.”
More than one dog possessing one bone: “The dogs‘ bone was nowhere to be found.”
Many cats possessing many kittens? “The cats‘ kittens mewled for their mothers‘ attention.” Gotcha twice there!
Do you see?
What if there are several individuals who own one thing together? How does one make the plural noun possessive then? Simple. The word following the plural possessive noun does not need to be plural. If many cats use the same water bowl, you can write, “The cats’ water bowl is empty.” You can also write of more than one old lady, of more than one chicken, of more than one soccer player, all of them possessing one thing together:
- “The old ladies’ house needs repair.”
- “The chickens’ coop is delapidated.”
- “The soccer players’ dressing room smells like zoo.”
You need not worry about what word follows the plural noun when you are making it possessive. All you need to think about is this: are there more than one “persons, places, or things” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the word you use for the plural noun indicates “more than one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe (captains‘ crews, football players‘ sweat socks, girls‘ dollhouse…). Is there only one “person, place, or thing” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the singular noun indicates “one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe and the “s” (the little girl‘s puppy, my mother‘s apron, the farmer‘s cows).
WHAT ABOUT WORDS WHICH DO NOT REQUIRE AN “S” AT THE END TO BECOME PLURAL?
Many nouns, like the the words “pickle,” “bird,” “hypocrite,” and “boat,” require an “s” be added at the end to make them plural. But some words do NOT require an “s” to be added at the end to make them plural. Think of words like “woman” (singular) which becomes “women” when plural. “Man” is singular, and “men” is plural. “Child” is singular, and “children” is plural. To make these words possessive in their singular form, just do what you would do with singular words like trident and turtle–add an apostrophe followed by an “s.” For instance:
- The man’s car…
- The child’s toy…
To make these words possessive in their plural form, DO THE SAME THING. Simply add an apostrophe followed by an “s” as in:
- The men’s sister
- The children’s toys
The words “women,” “men,” and “children” are ALREADY plural, so add an apostrophe and an “s” to make them possessive.
With a little practice, and a little extra study (as well as a desire to take your writing seriously by investing in tried-and-true grammar texts), you can improve your writing and not only look professional, but become a professional too!
written by Jean Foster Akin