Possessives are a funny thing. When used correctly, they add much-needed clarity to our sentences. But they seem to confound our apostrophe rules.

Let's sort out this grammar conundrum, shall we?

How to Use Possessives to Show Ownership

What's a Possessive?

Before we get into the tricky rules, let's cover the basics.

possessive is a word or punctuation that indicates the relationship between two nouns.

Sometimes, this uses adjectives: my car, his ice cream cone, our chair, their cat, etc.

Sometimes, this uses pronouns: the car is mine, the ice cream cone is his, the chair is ours, the cat is theirs, etc.

And sometimes, it uses apostrophes: Bert‘s ice cream cone, Jenny‘s cat, etc.

So when do you use each one?

First and Second Person Possessives

I'm partial to first and second person possessives:

It's tearing up my heart when I'm with you.

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.

The boy is mine.

The main reason I enjoy them (besides their prevalence in pop hits of the late '90s) is that they're pretty straightforward. Mine, yours, ours. No messy apostrophes.

Just pick the adjective or pronoun that matches the speaker and fit it into the sentence. Adjectives go before the nouns:

my heart

Pronouns go after the nouns:

The boy is mine.

Easy peasy, right?

Apostrophes: Where Possessives Get Tricky

If first and second person usages are pretty straightforward, third person usage is where the fun begins.

Let's start with singular possessives.

Singular Possessives

If your subject of ownership is a singular noun, you can go ahead and add the apostrophe and s.

Hanson's “MMMBop” is the best song with a nonsense chorus.

It gets tricky when your subject ends with an s. If it's a singular subject, you still add the apostrophe and the extra s.

Britney Spears's career trajectory has been an interesting one to watch, but she has evolved into a captivating entertainer.

Plural Possessives

Moving on to plural subjects: always, always, always end the subject with an apostrophe only.

The Backstreet Boys' fan base is devoted and passionate, but I've always been an *NSYNC girl.

It doesn't matter what the object of possession is, or if it's one thing or many. The subject or owner is what you want to keep track of.

Whose Turn? Yours

Now it's your turn. Go, use your possessive adjectives, pronouns, and apostrophes with confidence. With these rules mastered, you'll clear up your readers' confusion and use possessives like a pro.

(Did you catch all my possessives in that paragraph?)

When do you run into possessive problems? Let me know in the comments.


For today's exercise we're going to practice writing about ownership, paying close attention to apostrophes.

Here's the prompt: The assistant to a self-centered pop star (male or female) is cleaning up the star's hotel room. Describe their inner monologue as they work.

Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments.

Have fun!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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