The Write Stuff

The apostrophe revisited

2004-07-14 13:41

I have lost count of the number of people who have asked me to write something about the apostrophe again - it would appear that either the rules for its correct use are still unclear to many people, or its misuse is getting on the nerves of those who to whom the rules are very clear!

In the first article on the apostrophe (The Witness, April 15, 2003), we saw that one of the main functions of the apostrophe in English is to indicate possession (for example "the child's bicycle", "David's pen"), and that the apostrophe is not used for simple plurals (thus "used car's for sale" and "beautiful photo's" are incorrect). If the noun concerned is in the singular, or the plural does not end on s, the apostrophe precedes the possessive s (as in "the child's toy"; "the children's toys"). If the noun (or name) is in the plural and the plural is formed with s (not all plurals are, as we've just seen with children) no possessive s is added, and an apostrophe is simply inserted after the plural s ("ladies' blouses"; "the Smiths' car").

How should we indicate possession if a singular noun (or name) ends on s? Simply by adding an apostrophe and a possessive s, for example "the boss's Ferrari", "Des's B&B", "Tom Jones's diary".

There are a few names ending on s that have traditionally been treated differently when it comes to indicating possession - instead of adding an apostrophe plus s according to standard practice, we add only an apostrophe. These are names largely associated with the Bible: Moses and Jesus (possessive forms Moses' and Jesus' respectively). But all other names ending on s require another s preceded by an apostrophe, as shown above.

If we have names like Jones and Charles, which end on "es", and we put them in the plural (Joneses, Charleses), possession is indicated simply by adding an apostrophe after the plural es, as with any other plural noun/name ending on s - thus: the Joneses' car; the Charleses' house. Nothing difficult about that, one would think, yet I have often seen forms like "the Jones' car" and even a monstrosity like "the Charle's house"! Jone's and Charle's are acceptable if and only if the names concerned are Jone and Charle!

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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