Solving the 'apostrophe for possession problem' for good
It’s no more than a pen scratch. A flick of ink. A dash dotted here. A dot dashed there. On the delicious cake of your writing, it is a mere dusting of sugar.
For all its inconsequential appearance, the teeny tiny apostrophe is one of the most common causes of grammatical errors we make rvery day. Especially when the apostrophe is partnered with the letter ‘s’.
That’s a lot of fuss for something that only has two jobs. Seeing the apostrophe s signifies description or possession. I outlined this – and how to solve the problem caused by the pronoun “It” – here.
Armed with that knowledge, you’ve half the battle won. If the battle is one-on-one.
Now I will outline the issues faced when that battle is a war.
Welcome to the plurals.
Plurals: The bad news
Pluralisation has many rules.
It has many more exceptions. What some lack in logic, they make up for in contradiction.
Different rules are supported by legions of linguists. In a metaphoric minefield, they hurl grammar grenades, intent on thwarting your journey of language learning.
To avoid joining this war of words, I will keep the scope of this article very tight. I will not cover the rules, sub-rules and rule-breaks around plurals. I will focus solely on how they affect the apostrophe s.
My aim is to include just enough detail. To resolve just enough of the most common mistakes. For just enough of you to find useful.
Plurals: The good news
When used with plurals, the apostrophe s has only one job.
It no longer signifies description. To do that, the apostrophe would replace the a from ‘are’ to contract with the preceding noun. I won't be covering that here because a) 'are' is out of scope, and b) the contraction of are is aesthetically displeasing and should, in my humble opinion, be banned.
(I’ve no problem with the contracting of are in pronouns. I couldn’t live without you’re, they’re, and we’re. Though admittedly each of those come with new problems. But with nouns? No thank you. If you find yourself about to write “the flowers’re pretty” or “the oranges’re tasty”, put the pen down. Step away from the ugly little fucker. It will never improve what you’re writing.)
It's also important to remember that an apostrophe s does not make any form of plural. It has no bearing on pluralisation at all. Ever.
Meaning that, with plurals, the apostrophe s always signifies possession.
Know your apostrophe CRAP
There is one simple trick that will help you position the apostrophe correctly. Though most of the confusion of position comes with plurals - no matter how the plural has been formed - the approach works for singular nouns too.
The approach is CRAP. Communicate. Reverse. Apostrophe Position. (For some reason, this acronym has never got traction.)
First, think in general terms what you want to communicate. To avoid the potential plural problems, let's illustrate with the singular noun.
(To communicate) That Simon owns the oranges in the fruit bowl.
Now, reverse this sentence. Start with the object and end with the subject (the possessor). It will be longhand, often clunky. That’s the point.
The oranges in the fruit bowl are owned by Simon.
This is key. Place the apostrophe s immediately after the last letter of the possessor as written longhand. Keep it there. Flip the sentence back.
Simon’s oranges are in the fruit bowl.
And that’s it.
This CRAP approach will show you the right position for the apostrophe in almost every eventuality. If you always find it difficult to remember where the apostrophe s goes, just knowing this will vastly improve your odds at getting it right.
Now you're ready to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with the plurals.
The CRAP of plurals
There are many forms of pluralisation. For the purposes of knowing where the apostrophe should be placed in plurals, we can group these together.
Any noun that adds an s to the singular form to make the plural.
Sitting within this group are many of the exceptions to the rules of pluralisation.
Do NOT get distracted by such detail. If the final letter of the plural form is an ‘s’, that is all that matters for this rule.
We will use the CRAP approach. And the same (great) oranges.
That nobody can eat the oranges needed to assuage the appetites of others.
Do not eat the oranges that are for… the wives... the boys… the puppies.
Add the apostrophe immediately after the last letter of the possessor(s) and flip back.
Do not eat the wives’…the boys’…the puppies’ oranges.
For the regular plural possessive, there is no need for an additional s after the apostrophe.
When the same word is used for both the singular and plural form.
Many invariant nouns are animals. And some of these are contentious. There are interesting reasons for both these points. Interesting, but out of scope.
Same approach. Different object. For no reason other than orange fatigue.
That this is the place where the animals live…the aircraft are stored.
This is the home of our (flock of) sheep…the (fleet of) old aircraft.
Add the apostrophe immediately after the last letter of possessor(s) and flip back.
This is the sheep’s…the aircraft’s home.
When the plural uses the same word as the singular, the possessive will also be the same. Using a collective noun (such as flock or fleet, above) is not imperative but can help clarify for the reader.
The plurals that are completely different words to the singular.
These are the plurals you just must learn. You may ask if there are helpful patterns, such as whether all words containing double vowels change in the same way? Answering such questions would, once more, be scope creep.
But remember that an apostrophe s does not form, or affect the form, of a plural.
So no matter how unusual or complicated the irregular plural, our approach to the apostrophe is still CRAP.
For this example, we will stack up the possessors.
That this is the environment where you will find the living beings.
The pond is the home of the geese. The pond belongs to the children. The children were adopted by the homosexuals.
Add to each. And flip. And combine.
The geese’s home is the men’s children’s pond.
Note: The more possessives you include in one sentence, the more clunky your sentence becomes. You should never write a sentence like this. But it is technically correct.