Many people have trouble distinguishing between possessive nouns and plural nouns. Simply put, possessive nouns demonstrate ownership, while plural nouns indicate more than one person, place, or thing. Let's take a look at a couple distinguishing features of possessive nouns.
Possessive nouns typically include an apostrophe. For example:
Jennifer's imagination ran wild as she pictured the accident.
The kitten's favorite toy is a stuffed catnip mouse.
Think of the apostrophe as a hook or hand reaching out to take ownership of the object. Without that little hook or hand grabbing onto the "s" or the next word, the noun is simply pluralized.
There are five basic rules for possessive nouns.
Rule #1: Making singular nouns possessive
Add an apostrophe + "s" to most singular nouns and to plural nouns that don't end in "s."
You'll use this rule the most, so be sure to pay attention to it. English has some words that are plural but do not add an "s." Words like children, sheep, women and men. These irregular plural words are treated as if they were singular words when making noun possessives.
If a singular noun ends in "s," you can either add an apostrophe + "s" or just an apostrophe. Both are considered correct, and often which you choose depends on how awkward the word sounds with an extra "s" on the end: "the Smiths' house" sounds better than "the Smiths's house."
Singular nouns: kitten's toy, Joe's car, James'/James's book
Plurals not ending in s: women's dresses, sheep's pasture, children's toys
Rule #2: Making plural nouns possessive
Add just an apostrophe to plural nouns that already end in "s."
You don't need to add an extra "s" to plural nouns that already end in "s." Simply tuck the apostrophe onto the end to indicate that the plural noun is now a plural possessive noun.
The companies' workers went on strike together.
You need to clean out the horses' stalls.
The two countries' armies amassed on the border.
Rule #3: Making hyphenated nouns and compound nouns plural
Compound words and hyphenated words can be tricky. Add the apostrophe + "s" to the end of the compound words or to the last word in a hyphenated noun.
My mother-in-law's recipe for meatloaf is my husband's favorite.
The United States Post Office's stamps are available in rolls or packets.
Rule #4: Indicating possession when two nouns are joined together
You may be writing about two people, places, or things that share possession of an object. If two nouns share ownership, indicate the possession only once, and on the second noun. Make sure to add the apostrophe + "s" to the second noun only.
Jack and Jill's pail of water is prominently featured in the nursery rhyme.
Abbot and Costello's comedy skit "Who's on First" is a classic.
Rule #5: Indicating possession when two nouns are joined, and ownership is separate
This is the trickiest rule of all, but you probably won't need to refer to it too often. When two nouns indicate ownership, but the ownership is separate, each noun gets the apostrophe + "s." The examples below may help you understand exactly what this means.
Lucy's and Ricky's dressing rooms were painted pink and blue. (Each has his or her own dressing room, and they are different rooms).
President Obama's and Senator Clinton's educations are outstanding. (Each owns his or her education, but they attained separate educations).
A great resource site for ESL teachers is ESL Printables which includes reproducible worksheets for classroom use.
Elementary through college instructors can turn to Mad Libs® lesson plans for fun, interactive ways to practice grammar.
YourDictionary also has a selection of noun worksheets and quizzes for use at home or in school: