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 some of the most distinguishing features of possessive nouns.
Look for the Apostrophe
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.
The kids' toys are in the basket.
Think of the apostrophe as a hook reaching out to take ownership of the nearby object. Without that little hook grabbing onto the "s" or the next word, the noun is simply pluralized. The main exception is the possessive form of the pronoun it: "its" does not require an apostrophe.
Grammar Rules for Possessive Nouns
It's important to note that possessive nouns are working as adjectives. They're still nouns, but they're functioning in the capacity of an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns, providing further detail. For example, "the flower" becomes "the vibrant flower."
The "vibrant flower" tells us about a quality the flower has: it's vibrant. We could also say, "Jennifer's flower is vibrant." This would provide us with even more information. Not only is the flower vibrant, but it also belongs to Jennifer. Changing Jennifer into a possessive noun signals that more information is coming about a person, place, thing, or idea. In these instances, possession is acting as a modifier.
Let's dive into five rules for possessive nouns.
Rule #1: Making Singular Nouns Possessive
For most singular and plural nouns that don't end in "s," you can make them possessive by adding an apostrophe and an "s" to the end of them.
The puppy's collar is red.
Joe's car is hideous.
James' book will be published next month.
James's book will be published next month.
You'll use this rule the most, so be sure to pay attention to it. Of course, English has some words that are plural but do not have an "s" at the end of them, like "children," "sheep," and "women." 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" to the end or just an apostrophe. Both are considered correct. The one you choose depends on how awkward the word sounds with an extra "s" on the end. "Mr. Roberts' house" might sound better than "Mr. Roberts's house," but that's a matter of opinion.
Rule #2: Making Plural Nouns Possessive
Add just an apostrophe to the end of plural nouns that already end in "s" to make them possessive. 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: Hyphenated Nouns and Compound Nouns
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 hyphenated nouns.
My mother-in-law's recipe for meatloaf is my husband's favorite.
The United States Postal Service's stamps are available in rolls or packets.
She stood before three attorneys general's offices and knew her time was up.
Rule #4: When Multiple Nouns Share Possession
You may be writing about two people, places, or things that share possession of an object. If two or more nouns share ownership, indicate the possession only once, and on the final noun in the group. Make sure to add the apostrophe + "s" to the last noun only.
Jack and Jill's pail of water is prominently featured in the nursery rhyme.
Abbott and Costello's comedy skit "Who's on First?" is a classic.
Ross, Joey, and Chandler's adventures are hilarious.
Rule #5: Multiple Nouns with Separate Ownership
This is the trickiest rule of all, but you probably won't need to refer to it too often. When two or more nouns indicate ownership, but the ownership is separate, each noun gets the apostrophe + "s" to indicate separate possession. The examples below may help you to understand exactly what this means.
Lucy's and Ricky's dressing rooms were painted pink and blue. (Each person had 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.)
You'll find beautiful artwork in David's and Jeffrey's houses. (Each artist has a separate house.)
Other Tricky Possessive Scenarios
Without clumping these examples into generic rules, let's discuss a few common words and phrases that often trip people up.
5 Years' Experience: When writing your cover letter or resume, be sure to designate your experience with an apostrophe. Your years are showing possession over your experience and, since it's a plural noun, the apostrophe must go after the "s."
Writers' Retreat: This, too, becomes a question of plurality. Let's say you were off to attend a retreat in Texas. If there are multiple writers attending that retreat, then you must write "writers' retreat," as the retreat belongs to multiple writers. If you're going on a solitary retreat as a single writer, then you can write "writer's retreat."
Friend of My Dad's: Have you ever introduced someone as a friend of my dad? In truth, the correct way to say this is "a friend of my dad's." This is considered a double possessive. Both the preposition "of" and the apostrophe + "s" indicate possession. Your dad has possession over the friendship, meaning he needs an apostrophe + "s." This only works because the noun in question is a living person. Inanimate objects, such as "library" would be written as "a friend of my local library."
Living in a Noun Nation
There's no denying the importance of nouns. They exist in nearly every sentence, frequently working as the subject of a sentence. Given their popularity, it's only natural they're going to show possession over other people, places, and things.