Possessives are one of the three cases in the English language (the other two are nominative and objective, but let’s not worry about those!). Latin has five cases and some languages have seven or eight, so we are doing well here. In any case (pardon the pun), possessives imply ownership.
We all learned in grade school that to make a noun possessive, we add an apostrophe and an s. Not wrong, but not the whole story.
The only words that can be made possessive are nouns and pronouns. People have difficulty with both. Just remember that no possessive pronouns have an apostrophe! Here are the possessive pronouns:
First person singular: my, mine
Second person singular and plural: your, yours
Third person singular: his, her, hers, its (without the apostrophe)
First person plural: our, ours
Third person plural: their, theirs
Okay. Now on to the nouns.
Generally, for singular nouns you add an apostrophe and an s to make them possessive:
This is Mary’s book.
My dog’s bowl is empty.
Your essay’s introduction is very good. (Doesn’t need to be a person to be a possessive.)
Plural nouns that don’t end in an s are also made possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s.
The children’s playground is across the street.
The mice’s home is in that hole in the wall.
Plural nouns that end in s (which is most of them) are made possessive with the addition of only an apostrophe.
Her two sisters’ bikes are in the driveway. (One sister’s bike; two sisters’ bikes)
The parties’ themes were both tropical. (One party’s theme; two parties’ themes)
Most singular nouns that end in s or ss are made possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s (yes, really!)
The bus’s tire is flat. (Think of how you would pronounce it. It is spelled exactly as you would say it.)
My boss’s desk is really messy. (Once again, that is how you would say it.)
Thomas’s new car is over there. (You wouldn’t pronounce it Thomas new car, would you??)
I had to memorize Frederick Douglass’s speech. (Yup!)
The princess’s slipper fit perfectly.
Now, lets talk about a few of those words made plural.
What if you had two bosses, and they both had messy desks? My bosses’ desks are really messy. (You have used the plural of boss, which is bosses, and you have added just an apostrophe, like in other plurals that end in s. Once again, that is how you pronounce it. You don’t add another syllable. You don’t say bosses’s, so you don’t spell it that way either. My boss’s desk and my bosses’ desks are pronounced exactly the same way, even though they are spelled differently–because one is singular and one is plural.)
What if there were three princesses whose slippers all fit perfectly? Same as bosses. The three princesses’ slippers all fit perfectly. (You make princess plural by adding -es, and you add an apostrophe like in plurals that end in s. Once again, princess’s and princesses’ are pronounced the same way, although they are spelled differently because one is a singular possessive and the other is a plural possessive.)
All right. Let’s do the other three examples:
All the buses’ tires are flat. (Bus’s is singular possessive; buses’ is plural possessive)
The two Thomases’ last names both begin with L.(Correct, but you might just want to rewrite it!)
Well, there is only one Frederick Douglass, so I guess we can’t do that one!
Exceptions? Well, of course!
If a word ends in -es that sounds like -ez, you just add an apostrophe to make it possessive — no s.
Examples: Socrates’ (possessive), Hippocrates’ (possessive)
Also, the possessive of Jesus is Jesus’, and I would suppose Moses is treated the same way.
I hear that today is International Apostrophe Day. How appropriate!
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