Punctuation Tips: Apostrophes and Joint Ownership
  • 4-minute read
  • 15th October 2019

Punctuation Tips: Apostrophes and Joint Ownership

We’ve written about apostrophes before on this blog, but today we want to look specifically at possessive apostrophes. Join us, then, for a quick look at who owns what, including how to handle cases of joint ownership.

Possessive Apostrophes

Possessive apostrophes indicate ownership. Typically, this involves adding an apostrophe plus the letter “s” after a noun or someone’s name:

Morgan’s pencil was sharp.

The car’s tire is flat.

Here, for example, the apostrophes in the sentence above show us that the pencil belongs to Morgan and that the tire belongs to the car.

Possessive Apostrophes After “S”

The main variation on the rule above occurs when a word already ends in the letter “s.” In this case, you can either:

  1. Add an apostrophe plus another “s” (e.g., Alanis’s grasp of irony…)
  2. Or just use the apostrophe by itself (e.g., Alanis grasp of irony…)

Both are acceptable in modern English. However, if you’re writing an essay, you may want to check your style guide for advice on which approach to use.

Plurals and Possessive Apostrophes

Plurals that end in “s” sometimes cause confusion when using a possessive apostrophe. The key is that possessive apostrophes should always go after the final “s” in a plural. If we wanted to talk about two dogs with empty food bowls, for example, the apostrophe placement would be crucial:

The dogs’ bowls are empty. 

The dog’s bowls are empty. 

The first sentence above matches our intention, since it suggests multiple dogs and multiple bowls. But the second implies one dog with more than one bowl. And while this second sentence not ungrammatical, it would still be an error if we were trying to discuss the bowls of more than one dog.

Separate or Joint Ownership?

Figuring out where to put possessive apostrophes when two or more people own one thing can be tricky. Ultimately, it comes down to whether you’re talking about separate or joint ownership:

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  1. When two or more people separately own the same type of thing, you should add an apostrophe after each person’s name.
  2. If two or more people jointly own something, you should treat them as a single “subject” and you only need one apostrophe.

For example, if two people both had a stamp collection, we might say:

Tims and Rachels stamp collections are very valuable.

Here, we use an apostrophe for both Tim and Rachel because we’re talking about two people with two separate stamp collections. This is also why we use the plural noun “collections” and plural verb “are.” But let’s imagine that Tim and Rachel share a stamp collection instead:

Tim and Rachels stamp collection is very valuable.

In this case, we only use one apostrophe because “Tim and Rachel” are a single unit known as a compound subject. This is also reflected in the singular noun “collection” and the singular verb “is,” so we can immediately see that this sentence is about a shared collection (or joint ownership).

This distinction can be harder to spot when dealing with a mass noun:

Bobs and Beryls luggage was lost in transit.

Bob and Beryls luggage was lost in transit.

In the first sentence, Bob and Beryl have each lost their own luggage. In the second, Bob and Beryl have lost their shared luggage. And since “luggage” is always singular, we only have the apostrophes to tell us who owns what. In cases like this, then, correct apostrophe use is crucial!

When in doubt, though, you can always ask a proofreader. And with a little professional help, you can be confident your punctuation is correct.

Comments (31)
Joy Gornall
17th October 2019 at 11:15
May one make changes to wording, grammar, punctuation, etc. in a sentence if it has a reference citation, but it is not a direct quote?
    Proofed
    17th October 2019 at 16:11
    Hi, Joy. I'm not entirely sure I follow your question. What are you changing in that scenario if not a quote? Your own paraphrased version of something? I assume it's not related to apostrophes and joint ownership? If you're just asking a general question about editing quotes/paraphrasing, we do have separate posts on these topics that may be helpful: Paraphrasing a Source - https://proofed.com/writing-tips/writing-tips-paraphrasing-a-source/ Editing Quotations - https://proofed.com/writing-tips/edit-quotes-essay/
Tom
6th September 2020 at 17:48
My wife and I are trying to figure out how to say, "Tom and my house." Is it like that or should we say, Tom's and my house?"
    Proofed
    7th September 2020 at 16:52
    Hi, Tom. The correct version is "Tom’s and my house." The easiest way to work these things out is usually to try each "owner" by itself in the sentence. For instance, we'd say "Tom's house" and "my house," so together we'd say "Tom's and my house" (whereas "Tom house" is more clearly wrong when we see it by itself).
      Kriss
      27th June 2022 at 17:37
      Thank you! I was trying to figure out how to say “Kat’s and my birthday” when discussing the birthday I share with my twin.
      Proofed
      28th June 2022 at 11:39
      Happy to help, Kriss! And a happy birthday to you and your twin for whenever it happens!
DG
10th November 2020 at 16:39
What is the appropriate way to use apostrophes when it's one person with two identifiers? Example: Joe is a musician and a lyricist. How do you combine "Joe provides information from a musician's point of view" WITH "Joe provides information from a lyricist's point of view"? Is it "Joe provides information from a musician's and a lyricist's POV" (with an apostrophe after both)? Is this correct? Or is there only an apostrophe after "lyricist"? What is the rule here?
    Proofed
    11th November 2020 at 10:25
    Hi, DG. In this case, since "musician and lyricist" refers to one person, I would suggest "Joe provides information from a musician and lyricist's point of view" if you are using that phrasing. However, if you're worried this might be ambiguous in context, you could rephrase to something like "Joe provides information from the point of view of a musician and lyricist," where it is clear the subject is singular.
Sherry
2nd February 2021 at 02:55
In the sentence, "Your image and that of the company depends on your ability to proofread well" would you make "company" a possessive?
    Proofed
    2nd February 2021 at 09:39
    Hi, Sherry. Saying "that of the" is another way of indicating posession, so there's no need for a possessive apostrophe there. You could rephrase to "Your and the company's image depends on your ability to proofread well," which would use an apostrophe + "s" to indicate the possessive.
sare
2nd March 2021 at 19:29
Hi. Is this sentence grammarly correct? "What is Sandy's father's job?"
    Proofed
    3rd March 2021 at 09:25
    Hi, Sare. The grammar and punctuation there seem fine.
Franc
6th April 2021 at 16:53
Query: • Sarah’s, Mary’s and Daniel’s bikes are very valuable (each of the 3 has a bike and they are all valuable) BUT if I want to suggest that each of the 3 people has several bikes and not just one bike each, does anything change? Or is the sentence potentially the same?
    Proofed
    7th April 2021 at 09:51
    Hi, Franc, good question! In isolation (i.e., without any context that tells us more about the number of bikes), the sentence could be interpreted either way. Of course, if you wanted to avoid the ambiguity, you could rephrase for clarity (e.g., "Sarah, Mary and Daniel each have several very valuable bikes" couldn't possibly be misinterpreted as each having just one bike).
Chris
21st April 2021 at 19:14
Hi, quick question - if I'm speaking and referring to someone else's and my own something (individual ownership), would that something just need to be pluralized to indicate individual ownership? I'm speaking to a third person and am also introducing the second person for the first time, so "our" wouldn't be appropriate. E.g., "Chandra's and my calendars are clear, but yours is full." - is this the appropriate way to indicate that neither of our individual calendars have conflicts (distinct from a single shared calendar not having conflicts)? Thanks!
    Proofed
    22nd April 2021 at 09:07
    Hi, Chris. “Chandra’s and my calendars are clear, but yours is full” looks good to me for the situation you describe.
      Susan
      6th November 2021 at 18:59
      Hello. My daughter and I are stuck!! How would one se an apostrophe in "I invited both (Alexises) to the party." Or is that right? **The Alexis part
      Proofed
      9th November 2021 at 12:15
      Hi, Susan. There is no possession in your sentence, so no possessive apostrophe is needed. And assuming your question is otherwise about the plural form of "Alexis," then "Alexises" should be fine (as a rule, you add "-es" to pluralize a name that ends in "s").
Patti
27th December 2021 at 16:16
When referring to a couple just using their last name not ending in s... do you add an s or an 's. For example: Lots 1 and 2 sold to the Smiths or Smith's.
    Proofed
    4th January 2022 at 11:30
    Hi, Patti. Your example is a plural surname, so no apostrophe is needed (e.g., you would say "Lots 1 and 2 sold to the Smiths"). If you wanted to form a possessive of a plural surname, most style guides would suggest only adding an apostrophe after the plural "s" (e.g., "The Smiths' house is very big"). But some style guides may suggests adding an extra "s" after the apostrophe (e.g., "The Smiths's house is very big"). If you have a style guide, it's therefore worth checking what it says about plural proper name possessives. But otherwise we'd suggest just adding an apostrophe after the plural "s" as it is generally simpler and clearer.
Nioke
6th January 2022 at 08:46
Hey! I didn't read all the questions in the comment section so I'm not sure if this had already been answered but if you have something like this sentence: "...and could be used as rich fertilizer for the Sumerians'(?) crops," what is the correct apostrophe usage? We're saying that Sumerians owned these crops as a people but we're not referring to individuals.
    Proofed
    6th January 2022 at 09:50
    Hi, Nioke. Yes, the apostrophe in “…and could be used as rich fertilizer for the Sumerians' crops” is correct (you don't generally need an extra "s" for possessives with plural nouns).
Al
23rd January 2022 at 20:51
I still have a question that I don't think this answers. I want to say that my cats have the option to sleep on my bed. "The cats could sleep on the human's bed." However, my girlfriend is in the process of moving into my home, and I feel like it would be nice if I referred to the bed as belonging to both of us. I *THINK* that I can do this by moving the apostrophe. "The cats could sleep on the humans' bed." Two humans, one bed, both people own the one bed. So the apostrophe goes after the s. Do I have that correct? I'll keep googling for a definitive answer...
    Proofed
    24th January 2022 at 09:24
    Hi, Al. Yes, if the bed belongs to both humans, the apostrophe goes after the plural "s."
Jannie
15th February 2022 at 14:21
If I’m asking for multiple people’s availability, do I have to add ‘s to each name? For example: “Could you please share Lisa’s, John’s, Karla’s, and Tami’s availability the week of February 19?
    Proofed
    15th February 2022 at 14:40
    Hi, Janine. Assuming they're all going to have different times they are available, you should use an apostrophe + "s" for each person named. However, you could combine ownership if you knew, for instance, that some of the persons named share a schedule. Or you could rephrase to avoid using possessive apostrophes entirely (e.g., "Could you please share the availability of Lisa, John, Karla, and Tami for the week of February 19").
      Jannie
      15th February 2022 at 21:35
      Thank you! And if I’m referring to someone’s and his team availability, do I have to add ‘s to the name and also to the word team? For example: “John’s and his team’s availability are listed below. Let me know which time works for you.”
Viskontas
12th April 2022 at 09:21
What would be meaning of Viskontas Artworks? Is it absolutely wrong or maybe it can be Viskontas Artworks? I don't like the the double "s", so I am looking for a way to avoid it.
    Proofed
    12th April 2022 at 09:36
    Hi, Viskontas. Can you clarify your question at all? Currently, you've written "Viskontas Artworks" twice (with no double "s" in either). And it's not very clear what the context is. If this is for a title (e.g., for a portfolio website), then "Viskontas Artworks" should be fine. If you're using the phrase in a sentence to mean "the artworks belonging to or by Viskontas," though, then you'll need to follow the guidance in this post. The correct possessive form according to most style guides would be "Viskontas's artworks" (with a second "s"). But some styles, such as AP style, recommend adding just an apostrophe for names ending in "s" (e.g., "Viskontas' artworks"). If you're not following a specific style guide, then either approach should be fine as long as you're consistent.
Ebuka Azike
24th June 2022 at 17:19
what is correct in ownership, persons or persons' or not even BOTH?
    Proofed
    27th June 2022 at 09:05
    Hi, Ebuka. If you're referring to a single "person," the correct possessive form would be "person's" (e.g., "Have you seen that person's hat?"). "Persons" can also be a plural, for which the possessive form would involve adding an apostrophe after the final "s," but it is a fairly rare term in modern English (the standard plural of "person" is "people").

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