Possessive Nouns: Simple Rules for Showing Ownership

When you are indicating ownership of something, you use a possessive noun. For example, if Sally owns her cell phone, you might call it Sally's phone. Ready to learn more about possessive noun rules? Get a clear definition of what a possessive noun is, along with several rules for using possessive nouns. You'll also explore some tricky possessive noun situations.

Women and Handbags as Possessive Nouns Examples Women and Handbags as Possessive Nouns Examples

Possessive Noun Defined

A possessive noun shows ownership of something, like Duke's toy. Its key characteristic is the apostrophe before the "s." For example, the possessive noun "Duke's" shows that Duke is the toy owner. To truly understand how a possessive noun works, check out a few different sentence examples.

  • Beth's imagination ran wild as she pictured the accident. (The imagination belongs to Beth.)
  • The kitten's favorite toy is a stuffed catnip mouse. (The favorite toy belongs to the kitten.)
  • The kids' toys are in the basket. (The toys belong to the kids.)

Think of the apostrophe as a hook reaching out to take ownership of the nearby object. Without the little hook grabbing onto the "s," the noun is simply plural.

Grammar Rules for Possessive Nouns

Just like most English grammar, possessive nouns have a few different rules. Take a look at the six different rules for creating a possessive noun. You can see them in this quick reference table before breaking each one down.

Rule 1: Singular

Add an apostrophe + "s" to the end of noun

woman’s handbag, boy’s skateboard

Rule 2: Plural

Add an apostrophe to the end of plural noun

families’ car, trees’ roots, cats’ fur

Rule 3: It

No apostrophe is required to make its possessive

its fur, its nails

Rule 4: Hyphenated/Compound

Add the apostrophe + "s" to the end or the last word

father-in-law’s car, Social Security’s offices

Rule 5: Multiple Nouns Share Possession

Add apostrophe + s to the last noun in the group

Fred and Bill’s car; Sarah, Will and Beth’s trip

Rule 6: Multiple Nouns Separate Possession

Add apostrophe + s to the end of all nouns to show separate possession

John’s and Sarah’s cars; Jeremy’s and Truk’s lunches

Rule #1: Singular Possessive Add Apostrophe Plus S

For most singular nouns, you can make them possessive by adding an apostrophe + "s" to the end of them.

  • The puppy's collar is red.
  • Joe's car is hideous.
  • We looked at the company's logo.

You'll use this rule the most, so be sure to pay attention to it. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. 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 or Mr. Roberts's house (both correct)

Rule #2: Plural Possessive Add Apostrophe After S

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. See a few different examples of this in action.

  • The companies' workers went on strike together.
  • You need to clean out the horses' stalls.
  • The two countries' armies amassed on the border.

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 a noun possessive.

  • children's
  • sheep's
  • women's

Rule #3: It Doesn't Use an Apostrophe

The exception to the apostrophe + "s" is the possessive form of the pronoun it. "Its" does not require an apostrophe to make it possessive. See a few examples of how this works.

  • We weren't sure about its steps.
  • They followed its trail.
  • The scientist wasn't sure of its origins.

It doesn't take possession with "it's" because "it's" is the contraction of "it is." Therefore, when you are showing its ownership, you don't use an apostrophe.

Rule #4: Hyphenated Nouns and Compound Nouns

Hyphenated words and compound words can be tricky. Add the apostrophe + "s" to the end of the compound words or the last word in hyphenated nouns. Investigate how you compose these possessives through a few examples.

  • 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 attorney general's offices and knew her time was up.

Rule #5: 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 #6: 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 may help you to understand exactly what this means.

  • Lucy's and Ricky's dressing rooms were painted pink and blue. (Each person had their own dressing room, and they are different rooms.)
  • President Obama's and Senator Clinton's educations are outstanding. (Each owns their education, but they attained separate educations.)
  • Tyreke's and Olivia's bikes are on the rack. (They both have a bike on the rack.)

Common 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 - Your years are showing possession over your experience and, since it's a plural noun, the apostrophe must go after the "s."
  • writers' retreat - If multiple writers attend the retreat, 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 - This is considered a double possessive. Both the preposition "of" and the apostrophe + "s" indicate possession. 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 will show possession over other people, places and things. To practice your new skills, have some fun with these possessive noun worksheets. Then, when you're ready, test your knowledge with this possessive noun quiz.