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When a teacher or examiner is scanning back through your work to check he’s given you the right mark, one thing he’s sure to be keeping an eye out for is the possessive apostrophe. Have you used it where you should have? Have you used it correctly? Is he, after all, going to have to revise your mark downwards because you haven’t?

Hopefully not. Not, anyway, if you’ve read and taken on board this handy guide to their usage.

An apostrophe, to begin with, is one of these . One of its major uses is to mark an omission, for examplewhen I am becomes I’m, or when we will becomes we’ll. The other main use is with an ‘s’ to show possession, that is to show that someone or something owns something else. Thus, John’s car, Susie’s lipstick, the teacher’s pet and so on.

It’s a pretty bad mistake to forget a possessive apostrophe. Look at this, for example. ‘There was a boys coat left in my class room.’ A ‘boys coat’? You mean a ‘boy’s coat’, a coat that belongs to a boy.

On the other hand, it’s also pretty daft to put a possessive apostrophe in when it isn’t required. There are some apple’s in the basket. You mean there are some apples. No need for an apostrophe there. That’s a plural noun; no-one’s talking about anyone owning the apples or the apples owning anything.

But hang on, I hear you say… What about when you want to show possession for a plural noun? There are ten boys, but the boy’s coats is wrong because that means one boy owns all the coats, so what do we say. Easy: we say the boys’ coats. Got that? Boy owns coat = boy’s coat. Boys own coats = boys’ coats. Put the possessive apostrophe after the plural s.

Yeah, just remember that simple slogan: for plural possessives, put the possessive apostrophe after the plural s!

There’s one more problem – the very same problem that Homer Simpson has when describing his neighbour’s (or neighbours’) possessions and says ‘the Flanderseses house’. What poor old Homer is struggling with there is, how do you put a possessive ‘s’ and an apostrophe with a word that already ends with an ‘s’? You’ll see a bit of variation in usage here, and not a little argument amongst grammarians, but the safest thing to do is to treat it like any other noun, so: the Flanders’s house, the class’s homework and Ross’s girlfriend.

Although if a word ends in ‘es’ and makes an ‘iz’ or ‘uz’ sound, then treat it as if it were plural, thus: Robert Bridges’ Poems, Hodges’ grave and the clothes’ labels.

I haven’t gone into the sticky business of it’s and its, ours and theirs here – I think that deserves a post of its own. For now, then:

Challenge

Write a paragraph about a lot of people at a party, their clothes and the presents they bring. Try to include an example of each of the rules explained in this post.

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