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The Awkwardly Possessive Apostrophe

It’s time to unravel its confusion

An illustration of a possessed person with bright eyes around him

Possession Can Be Scary

Some people see grammar as a collation of rules. Really, it’s more like a jumble of exceptions. The road to learning English is beset by thousands of tiny little language landmines. Their sole purpose to ensure the journey is anything but smooth.

You may think these problems can be overcome once you have learned the logic behind the language. That there are patterns you will begin to see as your knowledge increases. That there will be a time when you can predict the anomalies or caveats likely to exist within a rule of grammar.

My friends, that time will never come. Here’s why.

There is no consistency or commonality to the breaking of the rules we have written for the grammar we have also written. They contradict each other. Many can only be explained with a “It’s just the way it is”.

Which leads us to one great example in point.

Introducing the apostrophe s

The apostrophe s is already tricky. Its role impossible to know without the sentence context.

Seeing an apostrophe between a noun and an s tells you one of two things.

It is replacing an ‘i’ to condense a proper noun with ‘is’.

This gives us “Simon’s a clown”.

Meaning I am adept at slapstick comedy.

Or it is replacing nothing. Instead it signifies ownership (of what comes afterwards) by the preceding proper noun.

So we have “Simon’s clown”.

Meaning I am in possession of the slapstick comic genius.

That works when the object of the sentence is another noun, preceded by an article (‘a’ or ‘the’).

Unfortunately there are many words in the English language that can be both nouns and adjectives. Then even context won’t help.

The Noun and Adjective Combos

For example, take the following sentence:

Have you seen Simon’s orange?

We could be replacing the ‘i’ in the sentence “Simon’s orange”.

This would be the case if I have been overapplying the fake tan. The question is encouraging mockery of the look that has been achieved.

But we may also be signifying ownership with the sentence “Simon’s orange”.

This would be referencing the deliciously zingy fruit I have – or had – in my knapsack. For the question implies one of two things. That the orange is a thing of beauty that needs to be seen to be believed. Or that it has gone missing, presumed stolen. The question may also be accusatory if you are believed to be responsible for said theft.


How do you know which is the intended meaning?

From a linguistic perspective, you don’t.

You would rely on the wider context of conversation, and hope for clues. If you can see my skin has its normal pasty sheen to it, it’s unlikely I have been at the melatonin. So you can comfortably assume fruit is the topic. (Though said pastiness may lead you to question the fruit’s vitamin content nonetheless).

Tricksy. But still workable. Common sense will help.

Once you have got to grips with that, we really screw with you.

That irritating 'it'

When the proper noun is replaced by the pronoun ‘it’, you can ignore everything you’ve learned so far. An apostrophe here means just one thing.

It’s means it is.

That’s all.

If you want to say something is owned by ‘it’, there’s no apostrophe. I have already used this earlier when I wrote “its role…”

Surely there’s a reason for this. Google it and you will find many reasons. Many, many reasons. Views that are held firmly and you may take as gospel…until you find another view that contradicts that one. And so on and so forth.

But here’s why this causes such widespread problems. We are looking at the wrong reference points.

It probably makes a teeny bit more sense when you stop thinking about how the apostrophe is used for possession with other nouns.

Ignore the apostrophe completely. Instead look at the pronoun and compare with how other pronouns signify possession.

Other pronouns don’t use the apostrophe for possession. We wouldn’t even consider including one, most of the time. Pronouns reform into completely new words when possessive.

A table showing the subject and possessive forms of pronouns

When everybody has been on the self-tan:

  • She’s orange

  • He’s orange

  • They’re orange (not apostrophe s but the approach is the same)

  • and It’s orange

When citrus is in abundance

  • Her orange

  • His orange

  • Their orange

  • and Its orange

Apples and Oranges

When looked at in this light, ‘its’ is merely the reformed version of ‘it’. And the fact that the reformed word ends with an ‘s’ is… merely coincidental.

Comparing it to the apostrophising of other possessives is confusing because it is an incorrect comparison.

Like comparing apples to, erm…oranges.

There are holes in this logic. The question that at once springs to mind is what about “one’s orange” and “one’s orange”. And Google will have many more.

If there’s any consistency in language, it’s its inconsistency.


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