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

30 Comments on Apostrophes and False Possessives

30 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).

  4. M.Azmy says:

    Is it a must to use apostrophe in ” this week’s timetable” or can I say ” this week timetable ” ?? thank you in a advance

  5. Sharon Ellis says:

    Please tell me how to punctuate the name of our organization-McKinney Area Newcomers Club.

    • The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively—to modify another noun—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Since you have a club belonging to the newcomers, you could write McKinney Area Newcomers’ Club. However, some writers prefer to use the word newcomers as an adjective describing the word group and omit the apostrophe.

  6. Daniel Knepshield says:

    I can’t find a satisfactory answer to this question: When referring to the fans of a sports teams, why is an apostrophe not used after the team’s name? For example, if I am a fan of the Cleveland Browns, why is it correct to write “Browns fan” instead of “Browns’ fan”? Since I am a fan of their team, i.e., one of their fans, shouldn’t their be an apostrophe to show possession?

  7. Judy says:

    I have two questions. Do I need an apostrophe in the following sentences:

    We now stock Skechers’ casual slip-ons in our shop.

    The Ladies’ Golf Association will meet tomorrow.

    Thank you!

  8. Priya says:

    My problem is related to the usage of ‘of’ as a possessive and replacing it with an apostrophe. Do take a look at this clause: gas’s contribution in the energy mix. Is the usage of the apostrophe correct here? Or should it be ‘contribution of gas’?

  9. Vicki says:

    Hi Jane,
    Thank-you for your very clear explanations on this site. Are you able to clarify something which you do address but is still confusing me for my example.

    I understand that noun derived adjectives ending in s don’t require an apostrophe and also that, while rare, possessive adjectives do require apostrophes. Rule 7 refers to time and money as possessive adjectives and indicates that “three days’ leave” is correct.

    How do I distinguish if something is a possessive adjective or a noun derived adjective? For example:

    Average days vacant or 7 days tenant arrears

    I am confused because these examples seem to be noun derived adjectives but because they involve time I am not sure…

    Thanks so much – can’t wait to get my first newsletter!

    • When trying to determine whether an apostrophe is necessary, we look at how a word is used in a complete sentence. We would need to see your examples used in complete sentences to make a determination.

      • Vicki says:

        Hi,

        Thank-you for the reply to my question above. The examples I gave ‘Average days vacant’ or ‘7 days tenant arrears’ were used in the text in exactly that way ie not part of a longer sentence. They were used as titles or headings I guess, to explain statistics for a real estate agency.

        Hope that helps as this is really bugging me!

  10. hola says:

    Is it correct if I say: “English football team’s coach”, or “English football team coach”?
    Thank you very much!

  11. Gaylene says:

    Please settle a dispute we’re having with the following portion of a sentence – “it became a necessity in order to pursue education beyond the village schools privileges of higher social status”. I believe schools should be possessive, but my father-in-law feels it should be a compound adjective. Is either correct? It seems to me that it’s the privileges of the schools, therefore possessive, not village schools describing privileges. Your input would be very helpful.

    • We agree that the possessive noun schools’ would be a better choice in your sentence. However, in our opinion, this turbid sentence is a lost cause. A rewrite is strongly advised.

      • Gaylene says:

        Thank you for this advice. I’d like to run another sentence by you. My father-in-law is writing a book and having me type it for him, and we’re having some differences of opinion in grammar and punctuation. Sometimes he’s willing to take my advice, but the following is another sentence on which we disagree:

        “The Canadians were determined to take the less logical, less economic direction.”

        Once again he would like to hyphenate, thereby making “less logical” and “less economic” compound adjectives. I feel that less is describing logical and economic, making them adverbs describing adjectives. I don’t think this is an adverb + past participle situation, but perhaps I’m incorrect. I once again look forward to your input.

        • “Less logical” and “less economic” are compound comparative adjectives, but in English they need not be hyphenated unless they present an ambiguity, as in this example: Wilson wrote several more interesting books in the 1950s. This unfortunate sentence should either be rewritten as Wilson wrote several more books in the 1950s that also were interesting OR Wilson wrote several more-interesting books in the 1950s.

  12. Laura Wright says:

    Can one say
    Experimental Shakespeares

    to describe multiple works being performed. Or should it read:

    Experimental Shakespeare

  13. Lynn says:

    The idea of false possessives makes sense to me based on what you said, but I am still confused about labels on places. On the locker room door, would you place a sign that said Men’s Locker Room – because the men posses it, or would you simply have a sign that said Mens Locker Room – using men as an adjective? How about sports teams? Would it be the Girls’ Hockey Team (ownership) or Girls Hockey Team (girls as an adjective? I am teaching my students about adjectives and want to be able to explain this to them. I will use what you have posted, but can you also answer my questions so that I am sure of my defense of what I am teaching them. In the sentence, Dad’s cooking skills are quite amazing, is Dad’s an adjective or a possessive noun? I feel like the sentence should not be in possessive form and that it should just state Dads cooking skills are quite amazing – and then dads would be an adjective. Please help. Thanks.

    • Men is already plural, so Men’s can only be possessive. There is no right or wrong answer for Girls’ Hockey Team or Girls Hockey Team. Dad’s is a possessive noun since you are describing the cooking skills of one dad.

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