Possessive Noun | Examples, Definition & Worksheet
A possessive noun is the special form of a noun that’s used to indicate ownership (possession). The possessive noun represents the owner (possessor) of something and usually comes right before another noun representing what they own (e.g., “Jeremy’s car”).
Possessive nouns are formed from the basic versions of nouns by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s”: for instance, “boy” becomes “boy’s.” The possessives of plural nouns normally only add an apostrophe, not an additional “s”: “boys” becomes “boys’.”
Possessive nouns don’t always indicate literal ownership. “Alice’s brother” doesn’t suggest that Alice owns her brother; the possessive is just used to show their relationship.
While the possessive is normally formed by adding an apostrophe “s,” the “s” is omitted for some types of nouns. The table below summarizes how to form the possessive for various types. More details are given in the following sections.
|Type of noun||Rule||Examples|
|Singular noun, or plural noun that does not end in “s”||Add ’s||cat’s; Vijay’s; editor in chief’s; mother-in-law’s; people’s; princess’s|
|Plural noun ending in “s,” or singular noun that looks like a plural noun||Add ’||dogs’; the Smiths’; politics’; the United States’|
|Singular name ending in “s”||Add either ’s or ’||James’s or James’; Descartes’s or Descartes’; Vilnius’s or Vilnius’|
Singular possessive nouns (and irregular plurals)
The possessive version of a singular noun is normally formed by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s.” “Sara” becomes “Sara’s,” and “cat” becomes “cat’s.”
This also applies to irregular plural nouns that don’t end in “s” (e.g., “children’s toys”), to abbreviations (e.g., “the ANC’s”), and to compound nouns made up of multiple words, whether hyphenated or written with spaces (e.g., “my son-in-law’s idea”).
It also applies to singular nouns that end in “s” (e.g., “the analysis’s conclusion”).
Plural possessive nouns
Most plural nouns end in “s,” so the rule for forming their possessive versions is to just add an apostrophe, not an additional “s” (e.g., “the boys’ bedtime,” “animals’ habitats”).
Mistakes are common in this area, because the plural possessive sounds just like the singular possessive but shouldn’t be written in the same way. “My mother’s idea” has a different meaning from “my mothers’ idea,” even though they’d sound the same aloud.
The apostrophe alone is also used for pluralized versions of names (e.g., “the Joneses’ house”). And it’s used for nouns whose singular form ends in “s” and looks the same as the plural form (e.g., “ethics’ importance”).
Singular names ending in “s”
With a name like “James,” there’s some disagreement about how to form the possessive. Most style guides recommend following the standard rule for singular nouns and adding an apostrophe and an “s”: James’s.
Others argue that the possessive should be formed differently depending on whether the added “s” sounds natural when pronounced aloud. So they might argue you should write James’s but go for just the apostrophe with another noun like Jesus’.
Because of the inconsistency involved in this way of approaching the issue, and because style guides like MLA, APA, and Chicago recommend always adding the “s,” we advise going for the first approach.
Possession of nouns in italics or quotation marks
When a noun is written in italics (e.g., the name of a book, a foreign term), the possessive apostrophe and “s” (if included) should be written in plain text, not in italics.
- The Catcher in the Rye’s ending
- The New York Times’ editorial staff
When a noun is written in quotation marks (e.g., a song title, the name of a poem), don’t attempt to form the possessive in this way. It looks messy, and the reader is unlikely to notice the apostrophe. Use a different phrasing.
- “Hey Jude”’s lyrics
- “Hey Jude’s” lyrics
- The lyrics to “Hey Jude”
Exception: “For goodness’ sake”
In the traditional expression “for goodness’ sake” and similar expressions where the possessive noun ends in an “s” sound, it’s normal to use only an apostrophe. This is because using the “s” would disrupt the rhythm of the expression by adding another syllable.
Note that such expressions generally aren’t used in formal contexts like academic writing anyway.
How are possessive nouns used in sentences?
Possessive nouns are used in two ways in sentences:
- Before another noun, in which case they essentially play the same role as possessive determiners like “my.” A possessive used in this way modifies the noun that comes next, which represents the thing or person “possessed.”
- Independently, in which case they stand alone, not connected to another noun. They’re still implicitly connected to a noun from earlier in the sentence or clear from the context. This is the same as the role played by possessive pronouns like “mine.”
|Before another noun||Independent|
|Ilia’s dog ran away last week. I hope they can find it.||I think that the brown dog is Ilia’s.|
|My watch’s second hand has stopped moving.||The first face he saw upon waking up was his mother’s.|
|The length of France’s border with Belgium is about 390 miles.||The responsibility to ensure the safety of the patient is the hospital’s.|
A compound possessive is the possessive form of a series of two or more nouns joined by conjunctions. In some cases, you should write every noun in the possessive form (e.g., “Kim’s and Harry’s”), in some cases only the last one (e.g., “Kim and Harry’s”).
- Both nouns are possessive when the different entities possess something separately.
- Only the last noun is possessive when the different entities share something, possessing it collectively.
Possession vs. contraction
As well as possession, the apostrophe is also used to indicate contraction: the shortening of a word or series of words. For example, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has”; the apostrophe stands for the missing letter(s).
Because of this, the possessive forms of singular nouns look identical to contractions of those nouns with “is” or “has.” For instance, “Julia’s” could be the possessive form of “Julia,” or it could be a contraction of “Julia is” or “Julia has.”
The intended meaning is usually clear from the context. You can assume that it’s the possessive if it’s followed directly by another noun. If it’s followed by some other part of speech like an adverb, verb, or article, you’re likely dealing with a contraction.
Indicating possession with “of”
The apostrophe is not the only way to indicate possession in English. Phrasings with the preposition “of” are the other main way. An “of” phrasing is the best choice in two main situations.
When the possessor is an object or concept (not a person or animal), it’s usually regarded as better style to use “of” to create the possessive. Sometimes the possessive noun version reads well enough, but the “of” version is more natural. Other times, especially when the “of” version is an established expression, using a possessive noun reads poorly:
- Politics’ importance
- The importance of politics
- My car’s steering wheel
- The steering wheel of my car
- The family’s head
- The head of the family
An “of” phrasing is also a good way to avoid creating a series of possessive nouns that could be awkward to read:
- Eliot’s writing’s themes
- The themes of Eliot’s writing
Other techniques may be needed to rephrase a series of three or more possessives; a series of “of” phrases can be just as awkward as a series of possessive nouns:
- Her wife’s cousin’s stamp collection’s highlight
- The highlight of the stamp collection of the cousin of her wife
- The highlight of the stamp collection carefully maintained by her wife’s cousin
In other situations, the “of” phrasing appears long-winded and reads less smoothly than a possessive noun:
- The eyesight of Rifka
- Rifka’s eyesight
- The car of his girlfriend
- His girlfriend’s car
Double possessive (“of” + possessive noun)
An unusual feature of English is the occasional combination of an “of” phrasing with a possessive noun (or possessive pronoun), thus expressing possession in two different ways at once. For example, you can say “a friend of John’s” (instead of “a friend of John,” which reads less smoothly).
This phrasing is standard, even though it seems redundant. But it’s only used in cases where the possessor is a person or animal and we want to suggest that they have several of the thing possessed.
The double possessive is most useful in cases where a phrasing with “of” alone would suggest something other than possession.
|“Of” phrasing||A picture of Anthea||A picture that Anthea appears in|
|Possessive noun||Anthea’s picture||A picture that Anthea made or owns; it seems to be the only picture|
|Double possessive||A picture of Anthea’s||A picture that Anthea made or owns; it seems to be one of several pictures|
Other alternatives to possessive nouns
Besides “of,” other uses of possessive nouns can sometimes be rephrased using other prepositions or using verbs like “belong.” The phrasing depends on what exactly the possessive noun means in each case. Some examples are shown below.
Worksheet: Possessive nouns
Want to test your understanding of how singular and plural possessive nouns are formed? Try the worksheet below. In each sentence, fill in the correct possessive noun (ending in ’s or just ’) based on the noun presented in brackets.
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Frequently asked questions
- What is a possessive noun?
Possessive nouns are formed from regular nouns by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s,” or, in the case of plural nouns that already end in “s,” by just adding an apostrophe.
- What does “possessive” mean?
Possessive is an adjective meaning “jealous” or “having the desire to own or dominate.” In a grammatical sense, it’s used as a noun or adjective referring to the ways in which possession (ownership) is shown in language.
Some grammatical concepts involving the word are possessive pronouns (e.g., “my”), possessive nouns (e.g., “Steven’s”), possessive apostrophes (apostrophes like the one in “Steven’s”), and possessive case (how words show possession in general).
- What’s the possessive of a name ending in “s”?
Most style guides recommend adding the apostrophe and “s” like normal: James’s. But some argue that it should depend on which version feels most natural to pronounce, so that you could instead write James’, without the additional “s.”
We recommend the first approach, adding the “s” consistently, as it’s recommended by most authorities. Whatever you choose, be consistent about how you form the possessive of a particular name. Don’t write James’ at some points and James’s at others.
- What is a possessive pronoun?
A possessive pronoun stands on its own, replacing a noun phrase (e.g., in “Jessie says this chair is hers,” “hers” replaces “Jessie’s chair”).
They should not be confused with possessive determiners, which instead appear before a noun, modifying it (e.g., “this is her chair”). The possessive determiners are my, our, your, his, her, its, their, and whose.
Sources in this article
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