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Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.


Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm


6 Responses to “Apostrophes and False Possessives”

  1. Aaron says:

    Just a quick note: Julie Andrews, while a first rate singer, was not in “My Fair Lady.” That distinction goes to Audrey Hepburn.
    Thank you for addressing the issue of the ever-problematic apostrophe in English grammar.

  2. Jeanette S. says:

    Please will you tell me whether or not I need to use the possessive apostrophe in the word children’s here: Barry’s children’s book is called Humpty Dumpty. I mean if it’s Barry’s book.

  3. Darlene I. says:

    Please help! A title of one of our educational programs is: Farmers Market Managers Conference. I cannot determine how to punctuate this title. Can you help? Thank you!

    • More information about this topic can be found in our blog Confusing Possessives. The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively is sometimes fuzzy. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using an apostrophe in the term “farmers’ market,” although it acknowledges that terms similar to this sometimes appear without one. The word managers can be considered either a possessive noun (Managers’) or an adjective describing the conference (Managers).

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