Forming and Using Possessive Nouns Correctly in Academic Prose
Apostrophes are used to form the possessive or genitive case of English nouns, with the standard singular possessive of a noun usually formed by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s’ (’s) to the end of the noun. This rule applies to common nouns, proper nouns and names, acronyms, initialisms and indefinite or impersonal pronouns, as the following examples demonstrate: ‘the man’s hat,’ ‘James’s house,’ ‘NASA’s launches,’ ‘the APA’s guidelines’ and ‘anyone’s book.’ Dates are treated similarly – ‘2016’s publications’ – and so are plural nouns that do not end with an ‘s,’ as in ‘women’s writing.’ The awkward use of possessives in parenthetical phrases should always be avoided, with both ‘it was Fred, his brother’s, article’ and ‘it was Fred (his brother’s) article’ being awkward constructions. Either ‘it was his brother Fred’s article’ or ‘the article was written by Fred, his brother’ would be much better wording.
When forming the possessive of singular compound nouns or ‘of’ phrases, the apostrophe and ‘s’ should be added after the last noun, as in ‘my son-in-law’s thesis’ or ‘the King of France’s library.’ For a set of linked nouns, the apostrophe and ‘s’ should be added only after the last noun if the nouns are acting together in terms of meaning. This is the case with the joint authors of a single piece of writing, as in ‘Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedy,’ which refers to one play written by two authors. If, however, linked nouns are acting separately, the apostrophe and ‘s’ should be added to the end of each of the nouns, as they are in ‘Sidney’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets,’ which refers to the sonnets written by Sidney as well as the sonnets written by Shakespeare.
To indicate a residence or place of business without actually mentioning the residence or business, a possessive name or noun formed with an apostrophe and an ‘s’ can be used, as in ‘I’m having dinner at the professor’s.’ Singular possessives can also indicate the length of a period of time such as ‘a moment’s notice’ or ‘a week’s holiday.’ A possessive form is used along with ‘of’ in a kind of double possessive when one of several things of the same kind is intended, as is the case in ‘a speech of Obama’s’ and ‘a book of Sara’s.’ In some cases this construction can significantly alter the meaning of a statement: notice the difference, for example, between ‘a photo of Sara’ and ‘a photo of Sara’s.’ This type of possessive tends to be used only with personal names or nouns relating to living people and it does not generally occur with common nouns or when referring to an organisation or institution, so ‘a shelf of the library’ and ‘a friend of Salisbury Cathedral’ are both correct.
When forming the possessive of a word, phrase or title set in italic or bold font, the apostrophe and ‘s’ should not be set in the special font, but instead left in the same font as the rest of your text. ‘The Hobbit’s unforgettable characters’ is therefore correct, as is ‘Emma Woodhouse’s notorious matchmaking,’ though you may not be able to see the italics on The Hobbit and the boldface on Emma Woodhouse in this posting.
Finally, apostrophes are not used to form the simple plurals of English nouns of any kind, including names, compounds, phrases, abbreviations and numbers, so correct plural forms are ‘girls,’ not ‘girl’s,’ ‘the Smiths,’ not ‘the Smith’s,’ ‘sisters-in-law,’ not ‘sister’s-in-law,’ ‘NGOs,’ not ‘NGO’s’ and ‘the 1960s,’ not ‘the 1960’s.’
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