The possessive form is an integral part of English grammar, but it is one that often confuses people. In this article, I will try to explain the various uses of and rules for the possessive form. Hopefully, by the end of this lesson you will understand it quite clearly.

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What is the Possessive Form?

The possessive form is used to indicate that one noun owns or is closely related to another. For instance, instead of saying “the car that belongs to John,” you can simplify it to “John’s car.” In the latter example, “John’s” is in the possessive form.

As you can see, the possessive form usually indicates ownership. For example:

  • That’s my book.
  • This is Sarah’s chair.
  • Let’s go to your house.
  • I borrowed Daniel’s camera.

In each of those examples, a noun or pronoun was made into its possessive form, which shows ownership of the noun that follows it.

Possession is not always about ownership of an object though. We might also say things like:

  • That was his fault.

While perhaps we cannot physically own fault, we still use possessive form to show a relationship between these ideas.

a guide to using possessive form in English grammar

Basic Rules for Possessive Form

Singular Nouns

For singular nouns, simply add an apostrophe followed by the letter “s” (‘s). For example:

  • The dog’s ball (The ball belongs to the dog)

Additional Examples for Singular Nouns

  1. The cat’s toy: The toy that belongs to the cat.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The cat’s toy is missing, and she keeps meowing.”
  2. The teacher’s desk: The desk where the teacher sits.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The teacher’s desk is filled with papers to grade.”
  3. John’s book: The book that belongs to John.
    • Usage in a sentence: “John’s book has his name written on the cover.”

These examples demonstrate how adding an apostrophe and an “s” to a singular noun helps to indicate ownership or a particular relationship to another noun. The concept becomes intuitive with practice, so don’t hesitate to apply it in your everyday conversations and writings!

Plural Nouns Ending in ‘s’

For plural nouns that already end in “s,” add only an apostrophe (‘) at the end. For example:

  • The dogs’ owner (The owner of multiple dogs)

Additional Examples for Plural Nouns Ending in ‘s’

  1. The drivers’ cars The cars belonging to multiple drivers.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The drivers’ cars have been put under a lot of strain during this race.”
  2. The students’ grades: The grades of multiple students.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The students’ grades have been posted on the bulletin board.”
  3. The teachers’ lounge: The lounge for multiple teachers.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The teachers’ lounge is getting a new coffee machine.”

By adding just an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in “s,” you can effectively and efficiently indicate ownership or a relationship to another noun. This rule simplifies the expression of complex relationships in a concise manner. Feel free to practise these examples in your conversations and writings to become more proficient in using the possessive form.

Plural Nouns Not Ending in ‘s’

For plural nouns that do not end in “s,” use the same rule as singular nouns: add an apostrophe followed by “s” (‘s). For example:

  • The children’s books (The books belonging to the children)

Additional Examples for Plural Nouns Not Ending in ‘s’

  1. The women’s restroom: The restroom for women.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The women’s restroom is on the second floor.”
  2. The men’s locker room: The locker room for men.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The men’s locker room was recently renovated.”
  3. The people’s choice: The choice preferred by the people.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The new park was the people’s choice for the community project.”

When dealing with plural nouns that don’t end in “s,” adding an apostrophe followed by an “s” (‘s) allows you to show ownership or a close relationship between nouns effectively. This rule is a straightforward way to convey more complicated ideas simply and accurately. It’s useful for both speaking and writing, so incorporating it into your daily language use can enhance your communication skills.

Compound Nouns

For compound nouns, add the possessive form to the final noun only. For example:

  • My sister-in-law’s car (The car belongs to my sister-in-law)

Additional Examples for Compound Nouns

  1. My mother-in-law’s recipe: The recipe belonging to my mother-in-law.
    • Usage in a sentence: “My mother-in-law’s recipe for apple pie is a family favourite.”
  2. The attorney general’s decision: The decision made by the attorney general.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The attorney general’s decision will be announced tomorrow.”
  3. The postman’s bag: The bag carried by the postman.
    • Usage in a sentence: “The postman’s bag was heavier than usual today.”

In compound nouns, you’ll note that the possessive form is added only to the final part of the compound noun. This is a standard rule in English and helps maintain clarity in complex or long phrases. It’s a useful rule that simplifies expressions and makes your speech and writing more effective. So, the next time you encounter a compound noun and wish to make it possessive, remember only the final noun needs to be altered.

By the way, knowing this sort of rule will really help boost your score for Grammatical Range and Accuracy!

Multiple Owners

When multiple nouns own a single object, make only the last noun possessive. For example:

  • Mary and John’s house (The house belongs to both Mary and John)

Additional Examples for Multiple Owners

  1. Jack and Jill’s pail: The pail that belongs to both Jack and Jill.
    • Usage in a sentence: “Jack and Jill’s pail was used to fetch water.”
  2. Sara and Tim’s wedding: The wedding involving both Sara and Tim.
    • Usage in a sentence: “Sara and Tim’s wedding was a lovely affair.”
  3. Mum and Dad’s anniversary: The anniversary that belongs to both Mum and Dad.
    • Usage in a sentence: “Mum and Dad’s anniversary is coming up, and we need to plan something special.”

When indicating that an object or concept belongs to multiple people, remember to add the possessive form only to the last noun. This clearly communicates that the ownership or relationship is shared among all the names listed. This rule simplifies the expression of complex relationships and can be used effectively in both speech and writing.

You must pay attention to subject-verb agreement here. Even though two people own something, if that something is a singular noun and it matches to the following verb, the verb must be in singular form.

Exceptions and Special Cases


Pronouns have their own possessive forms and don’t use an apostrophe. For example:

  • my, his, her, its, your, their


  • This is my dog.
  • That is her apartment.
  • Is this your book?

Possessive with ‘of’

Sometimes, particularly with inanimate objects or abstract concepts, it might be more natural to use “of” to show possession. For example:

  • The cover of the book.
  • The laws of physics

This would be a little more common than saying “The book’s cover” or “Physics’ laws.”

Understanding the possessive form is vital for clear and effective communication in English. It helps condense complex ideas into simpler expressions without losing meaning. Though there are rules to follow, practice makes it much easier to incorporate them naturally into everyday language. So, keep practising, and you’ll become adept at using possessives in no time!

People’s or Of People?

Whilst sometimes we have a choice to use either a possessive form or “of,” we almost never say “of people” or use a person’s name. For example:

  • INCORRECT: The government must respect the rights of people.
  • CORRECT: The government must respect people’s rights.
  • INCORRECT: This is the house of John.
  • CORRECT: This is John’s house.
  • INCORRECT: This is the phone of my friend.
  • CORRECT: This is my friend’s phone.

This rule is quite tricky for many speakers of European languages because usually a direct translation from their language uses “the ___ of (someone).” However, we just don’t say this in English anymore. It was possible many years ago but it is not very archaic.

Common Mistakes

When we use the possessive form, we still have to pay attention to other grammatical rules, such as pluralisation. Many people add “s” to make a word plural but forget that they need to use the plural form. For example, they might write:

  • Conservationists have made efforts to protect tiger’s habitats.

So what is wrong here?

The problem is that “tiger” is in neither singular nor plural form. This is actually quite a serious problem. We need to either say “a tiger’s habitat” or “tigers’ habitats.” In this case, the latter would be most logical:

  • Conservationists have made efforts to protect tigers’ habitats.

Sometimes you can even write something that is grammatically correct… but in fact it is factually wrong! Look at these two sentences and their explanations:

  • The student’s grades declined in the second semester.
    • This means that one student has his/her grades decline.
  • The students’ grades declined in the second semester.
    • This means that some/many students had their grades decline.

Let’s finish up with a little quiz that appeared on my Twitter page some months ago:

Do you know the right answer? I hope so!