Do I need an apostrophe if the word ends in s?

Need an apostrophe graphicIf you find yourself wondering whether you should put an apostrophe in a word that ends in s, but haven’t got a clue,  this post is for you.

Conscientious people with only the vaguest grasp of apostrophes often have a nagging suspicion that words ending in s might need one. That’s true, but getting it right all the time is a bag of worms. The two sentences below should have just one apostrophe between them, even though there are a lot of words ending in s:

James buys his three friends beers. James then brings his friends beers over to the booths.

If you know that the apostrophe goes after friends in the second sentence, please don’t read any further. It’s just not worth the aggravation. If you weren’t sure, read on.

First up, my apostrophe advice for gamblers and those willing to guess:

Resolve never to add an apostrophe as a knee-jerk reaction to a word that ends in s, unless you know why. The mean ones who understand grammar are more likely to sneer when a needless apostrophe is added than when one is missed out. Statistically, if you are completely guessing, you’ve a better chance of getting it right if you don’t add one in than if you do. *

If what you are writing is important to you, and you’d like help to get it right, ask yourself these questions. They’ll help you narrow down the odds, though it’s not exactly the textbook method. I wish you luck that you’ll get the answer you need near the top. Here goes!

1. Can you take the final s off and still have a meaningful word?

Some words just end in s (tennis, always, focus). If that’s the case here, and the word makes no sense if you take off the final s, no apostrophe is needed, unless the word is a name, when it might be (go to question 5).

2. If you do still have a word without the s, is the word a verb (= a doing word: learns, believes, is, has, hopes)?

Verbs don’t need apostrophes. 

3. Can you take off the s, leave a gap and write is and mean the same thing (it‘s used as the short version of it is)?

It feels more natural to write that’s it than that is it. When you use the short version, put a single apostrophe where the space and the i should be. So here is becomes here’s. This type of apostrophe shows your reader that one or more letters has been missed out. It’s the apostrophe of omission or contraction.

It might seem weird, but I’m fond of this apostrophe and I would miss it if the language was to lose it. It may save your reader from having to read that bit of the sentence twice. You can choose to write Santa’s going to be here or Santa is going to be here. Either is fine. If in doubt, you might choose to write it out in full.

Most people would soon have this mastered if it wasn’t for anxieties about the other type of apostrophe. It’s worth mentioning that whose does not need an apostrophe, as it is not short for who is. Testing both versions in your sentence is always the easiest way to work it out. The girl whose smile haunted me is not the same as The girl who is smile haunted me.

4. Is the word a plural (does it refer to more than one thing)?

Carrots = more than one carrot. Simple plurals do not need apostrophes (peas, potatoes, nails, hopes). If you’re just writing the one word on a sign, you’ve cracked it. No apostrophe.

Sadly, plurals might need an apostrophe if they have or own things that are also mentioned in the same sentence. Heave a sigh (it’s OK, I’m sighing with you) and move on to the next question.

5. Is some kind of ownership or possession involved in the sentence?
  • His, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs and whose (OK the last doesn’t end in s, but better to mention it) don’t have apostrophes, but do indicate possession. These are old, often used words but even the staunchest of sticklers just doesn’t feel the need for apostrophes in them. Sadly, these are the exceptions.
  • In most other cases, apostrophes are needed to indicate ownership. This is the use of apostrophe I would universally drop today for the wellbeing of mankind if I had the power. I consider myself a lover of language, but I like people too!
  • To avoid irritating others who understand all about this, we must add an apostrophe and often an s to a noun (= a person, a concept like happiness or a thing) if we want to explain that these have or own something, in written language at least. If we’re just speaking aloud, everyone will work it out for themselves. Examples are Cheryl’s dresses, the dog’s blankets (one dog).
  • You’ll see from these examples that the apostrophe goes in the word for the owner. Dresses and blankets in the phrases above don’t have any possessions that are mentioned, so they are just simple plurals.
  • This is fine for many possessive words, but it doesn’t help here, when the word already ends in (Tuesdays, Boris, Miss or several dogs). What happens now?
  • If your word ends in ss I suggest that you recast the sentence. This just means writing the same thing another way. It is done by professional writers to avoid tricky problems and it’s a safe bet. Instead of trying to work out whether and where to put the apostrophe in Have you signed Misses’ card? you could put Have you signed the card for Miss?

Otherwise, my advice for gamblers is:

You’re in a hole now. Not even the experts agree. But well done for reading this far! It looks like you may need an apostrophe. If you’re sure that possession is involved (the word that ends in s has something that is also mentioned in the sentence), go ahead and whizz an apostrophe in after the s. Add an extra s after the apostrophe too if you’re also confident the word is singular and you can bear the look and sound of what you end up with. You won’t get it right every time, but the odds are now working in your favour. 

For everyone else, go to the Oxford site to see what they have to say about apostrophes of possession.

What do you mean by possession or ownership?

Perhaps at the root of the problem is our collective failure to remember the basic terms used to describe types of words that have almost certainly been taught to us at school. It’s so easy to forget ideas or skills we never really use afterwards. The average person is not very likely to ask “is it a possessive noun?” outside school.

These days there’s plenty of information online, thought it’s sure fire bet that, when looking up apostrophes, you’ll come up with incomprehensible or contradictory information. You’ll find a long stream of comments and replies from agitated people who seem to care about this considerably more than you do, yet can’t agree between them. At this point, you might think you’re looking at an in crowd that you’re always going to be out of.

I don’t recommend that you look up ‘genitive case’ on Wikipedia, so I’m not going to link to it here, even though people like me might foolishly imagine it could be helpful. No disrespect to the contributors, but if you insist on looking and you can understand it, award yourself a certificate.

But I am happy to share another link to the Oxford site where grammatical terms are explained: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/grammar-a-z

If in doubt ask a friend.

There is no shame in asking for help. If they think less of you, more fool them.

Comfort

The thing to remember is that we are all talented linguists – the ability to speak and be understood is pretty much universal, and that’s amazing. A child has a truly remarkable ability to internalise complex grammatical concepts and constructions just by listening to others speak.

We may not all use conventional, received, old-style BBC English, but even the wildest regional or cultural dialects have their own grammatical rules which their speakers rarely break. Real banana skins for native speakers, such as the apostrophe, are mercifully rare – and tend only to arise in written English.

If you have an opinion or a tip, I’d love to hear it. I know how badly apostrophes can rustle feathers, so be kind! I’m not addressing those in the know, but those who want to know. I’ve not followed all the rules here myself – in particular, I’ve not used quote marks around words or parts of words used as examples, on the valid grounds that adding in lots of extra marks that look just like apostrophes isn’t likely to help.

*I’d be very happy it if a statistically inclined linguist has the numbers and could clarify the odds of whether an apostrophe will or will not be needed when a word ends in s in classic, contemporary written English. 

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