58. Optional Apostrophe Endings



In some contexts an apostrophe ending on a noun can be dropped without much change of meaning


The apostrophe ending on nouns may be -’s or -s’. Elementary coursebooks say it causes its noun to be understood as a possessor of something represented by a noun straight after. Examples are Alexander’s horse (= the horse owned by Alexander), Tesco’s supermarkets, cats’ paws and customers’ accounts.

What the books rarely say is that placing the same two nouns together in the same order without the apostrophe ending can often express the same meaning. The apostrophe ending can be dropped quite easily in this way from two of the above examples, leaving Tesco supermarkets and customer accounts. The problem that this raises, of course, is how to decide which nouns can drop their apostrophe ending and which cannot. It is this question that I wish to address in the present post.

Nouns used without an apostrophe ending before another noun are very like adjectives (see 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives,  47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns and 136. Types of Description by Nouns). One of their key features is that they are normally in the singular form and have no influence on the choice of a/the before them, this being determined by the other noun, the one after them.

The opposite is true of apostrophe nouns, since they can easily be plural and do usually determine the use (or non-use) of an article before them. One consequence of this difference is that sometimes dropping an apostrophe ending also requires a change of article. This is the case, for example, with Manila’s climate (no article because of the proper noun Manila), which in the non-apostrophe use becomes the Manila climate (the required by singular countable climate – see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).



“Possession” is by no means the only meaning that an apostrophe ending can express. This is hardly surprising given the variety of other meanings that possession words like HAVE and of can have (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE and 160. Uses of “of”). Therefore, before optional English apostrophe endings are examined in detail, it is useful to survey their various possible meanings. 

Most of these meanings are recognised by mainstream grammar descriptions. Many are the same as the meanings listed in this blog in 136. Types of Description by Nouns. They are:

A.  PROPERTY-OWNER: Arsenal’s stadium; passengers’ belongings; John’s car.

B.  COMPONENT-OWNER: cats’ paws; Shakespeare’s beard; Ford’s employees; a summer’s day.

C.  CHARACTERISTIC-HOLDER: the sky’s colour; water’s boiling point; gardens’ beauty; iron’s density; Gandhi’s sincerity; the Beatles’ haircut (the second noun is a feature or property of what the first noun represents. For more on properties, see 163. Ways of Naming Properties.

D.  LOCATION: Hong Kong’s traffic; The Pacific’s currents; Manila’s climate; Kenya’s President.

E.  SOURCE: the sun’s rays; the BBC’s programmes; cows’ milk; France’s wines.

F.  AUTHOR: Archimedes’ Principle; Down’s Syndrome; Shaw’s plays; Halley’s Comet.

G.  BENEFICIARY: Fathers’ Day; The Champions’ League;  a visitors’ entrance;  a heroes’ welcome;  Nelson’s Column;  a People’s Charter;  St Paul’s Cathedral (the two nouns can be reversed with for placed between them).

H.  ACCOMPANIMENT: Newton’s time; the earth’s history; Mandela’s wife; The Colosseum’s fame; women’s rights; a plant’s environment; writer’s cramp (the second noun names something that accompanies the person or thing named by the first but is not a possession, part or property of it. The last of the examples is slightly different in that the second noun is not an automatic accompaniment of the first – some writers do not suffer from cramp).

I.  ACTOR: Microsoft’s rise; the panda’s survival; television’s influence; the aircraft’s descent (the first noun says who/what executes an action indicated by the second. For a related structure, see 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2).

J.  OBJECT: Pompeii’s destruction; London’s portrayal; the atmosphere’s pollution; America’s discovery; Newsweek’s embarrassment; Ronaldo’s transfer; Lennon’s assassin; the UN’s supporters; a bicycle’s owner (the first noun names the object of an action; the second noun names either the action or a type of person responsible for it).

K.  TIME DURATION: an hour’s wait; a moment’s hesitation; three days’ delay.

L.  TIME OF OCCURRENCE: yesterday’s news; July’s edition; Saturday’s events; an hour’s time.



An optional apostrophe ending is one whose removal is grammatically possible and does not seem to alter the meaning, as in customers’ accounts. Some apostrophe endings are not optional because their removal is not possible and/or does change the meaning significantly. An example of a phrase with a non-removable ending is France’s wines (one cannot say *France wines); one whose meaning changes if the ending is removed is a weekend’s work (it means “work lasting a weekend”, in contrast to weekend work, which means “work to be done on a weekend”).

Here are some tentative generalizations about non-optional and optional possessive endings.

1. Non-Optional Endings

Of the meanings listed above, the following seem particularly unlikely to allow removal of the apostrophe ending:

– CHARACTERISTIC-HOLDER (C): The apostrophe ending usually seems necessary if the first noun represents an individual person or thing, like Gandhi’s or the garden’s. If, on the other hand, the first noun represents a group or general concept, then an apostrophe ending becomes more optional (though still not common). Non-apostrophe equivalents involving first nouns of this kind in the list above are the water boiling point, iron density and garden beauty.

– AUTHOR (F). The only time when the apostrophe seems droppable is when the author is responsible for a group of offerings, as in Shakespeare’s play/plays (we can say a/the Shakespeare play and Shakespeare plays). In contrast, Archimedes’ Principle, Pythagoras’ Theorem, Halley’s Comet and Down’s Syndrome appear likely to keep their apostrophe endings (especially the last).

– BENEFICIARY (G). Again, the apostrophe ending usually seems necessary. The only example above where it is optional is the visitors’ entrance, the alternative being a/the visitor entrance.

– ACCOMPANIMENT (H). Most but not all expressions in this category appear not to have an optional apostrophe ending – we cannot say *the Mandela wife, *The Colosseum fame or *woman rights. The exceptions seem to involve first nouns that are not human and lack a capital letter (see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). Two such expressions in the list above are the earth’s history (allows earth history) and a plant’s environment (a/the plant environment).

– TIME DURATION (K). Only the last of the listed phrases above has an optional apostrophe ending (= a three-day delay). I am not sure why it is different.

– TIME OF OCCURRENCE (L). The apostrophe ending is not optional on yesterday’s, tomorrow’s and nouns with next, last, this or the following, like next term’s. It is also necessary in an hour’s (minute’s, day’s etc.) time, which means “one hour (etc.) from now”, not “lasting an hour (etc.)” (see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4, #7). Other time expressions, however, do seem to have an optional apostrophe ending. Examples are Saturday’s events (= the Saturday events), July’s edition (= the July edition) and the twentieth century’s wars (= twentieth-century wars).


2. Optional Endings

All of the other categories above seem to allow a great deal of choice about the use of an apostrophe ending. I offer the following observations.

– PROPERTY-OWNER (A): The nature of ownership suggests that owners will mostly be living creatures. They do not always have an optional apostrophe ending. They usually have one when the first noun names a group (Tesco Supermarkets, the Arsenal Stadium, passenger belongings). If the first noun refers to an individual, the apostrophe can still be optional, but only when the overall meaning is publicly well-known (e.g. Churchill’s cigars = the Churchill cigars; Pavlov’s dog = the Pavlov dog). However, if an adjective equivalent of the first noun exists, it may be preferred to the noun (the Pope’s shoes = the Papal shoes). Overall meanings that are not well-known, such as John’s car and Shakespeare’s hat, usually need their apostrophe ending.

– COMPONENT-OWNER (B). Once again, the apostrophe ending looks especially optional when the first noun names a group (Ford employees, cat paws). If an individual is being named, the apostrophe ending may normally be necessary, its absence either impossible or suggestive of a different meaning. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s beard. One could conceivably say the Shakespeare beard, but this seems to describe a kind of beard rather than the exact one that Shakespeare had, wearable by anyone. Examples where the apostrophe ending seems unlikely ever to be dropped include Shakespeare’s fingers and Jesus’ blood. Presumably these could never form categories.

– LOCATION (D). Apostrophe endings showing this usually seem optional, e.g. (the) Hong Kong traffic, Pacific currents.

– SOURCE (E). This category resembles A and B above. The apostrophe ending is usually optional when the first noun represents a group (e.g. BBC programmes, cow milk). It if represents an individual or thing, the public fame of the overall meaning may be relevant: the sun’s rays can become sun rays but the cow’s milk has a different meaning from the general cow milk. In the list above, France’s wines is exceptional. Perhaps the existence of the adjective equivalent French rules out *France wines.

– ACTOR (I). Most apostrophe endings in this category seem optional, though in some cases they seem preferable. Easily-obtained alternatives to above-listed examples include panda survival and the aircraft descent. Not so possible-sounding is the Microsoft rise: to avoid the apostrophe ending you normally have to say the rise of Microsoft. Perhaps the human and/or group nature of Microsoft explains why.

– OBJECT (J). Apostrophe endings seem especially optional on object nouns when the noun after them refers to someone who performs an action, rather than to an action itself (it is easy enough to say the Lennon assassin, UN supporters, the bicycle owner). With action nouns, apostrophes seem more likely: we cannot say *the Pompeii destruction, *the London portrayal, *the America discovery or *the atmosphere pollution (though apostrophes can still be avoided with of – see 31. Prepositions after “Action” Nouns 1).

It may be that object nouns accompanying action nouns are especially likely to have an apostrophe ending when they are associated with a particular rather than general time (as Pompeii etc. above are). In generalised expressions, the alternative structures seem more necessary (e.g. electricity generation for all electricity at all times).


3. The Role of Fixed Expressions

Fixed expressions are particular words combined together so often in a particular way that paraphrasing them sounds strange (see the discussions of “collocation” in 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases). Apostrophe endings in fixed expressions will of their nature, therefore, not be optional. They occur in many of the categories above, even ones normally associated with optional apostrophe endings. Examples are a summer’s day, Fathers’ Day, a moment’s hesitation, Down’s syndrome, women’s rights and writer’s cramp.


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