Apostrophes and the plural possessive

We are having a friendly discussion at work and nobody can agree on the use of the apostrophe in this phrase: womens health. Should the apostrophe go between the n and the s (women**‘s health), after the s (womens’** health) or no apostrophe? Bob’s Guide to the Apostrophe does not address this, and neither Chicago Manual of Style nor Publication Manual of the APA has the answer. And what would be a good, basic grammar book (or website) to have on hand for these types of questions?

The correct is “women’s health.” “Women” is a plural noun already, so you just need the 's to make it possessive.

The general rule is that plural nouns ending is “s” form the possessive by adding an apostrophe, but plural nouns not ending in “s” add an apostrophe and s.

Bob’s Guide? Is that the angry flower one? I love that!

I second Reality Chuck’s opinion. This one wasn’t even really difficult. We really had trouble some time ago trying to figure out how to say two McDonald’s restaurants. Two McDonald’ses? Also the question of pluralizing years and abbreviations (e.g. 1960s vs. 1960’s, DVDs vs. DVD’s) hasn’t been fully resolved. I come down on the side of the former, but the New York Times is against me.

For possessives ending in s, I like the rule that says spell it as you would pronounce it. If there’s an extra sound, add 's, if not just add '.


For goodness’ sake
The Hundred Years’ War

Greg Charles’s worthless opinions

But what about one I came across a couple of weeks ago?

You don’t really need to know that it is in my Catholic Sunday Missal (“Texts approved for use in England & Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Africa”), nor that it is in the Communion Antiphon for All Saints’ Day.

“Happy are they who suffer persecution for JUSTICE’ sake”

“Justice” doesn’t end with S but sounds as if it might.

Personally I don’t like it. I always add the apostrophe S no matter what (St James’s Park; Mr Rogers’s Neighbourhood etc).

I swear it’s as if I have a Guardian Post Angel who picks my brain and then posts my questions in advance. I was just reading this CNN article, and debated briefly with myself over “women’s injuries” and considered opening a thread, but decided it was correct beforehand.

Nouns, singular or plural, which do not end in a /-s/ or /-z/ sound, take “-'s” to form the possessive.

Singular nouns nearly always form the possessive by adding “-'s” even if they end in “-s” already. Exceptions are classical names ending in S, which typically take the lone apostrophe, but which are idiomatic in their English usage, some taking “-'s” and some merely an apostrophe: Achilles’ heel but Sophocles’s tragedies.

Plural nouns ending in a /-s/ or /-z/ sound generally form the possessive by adding an apostrophe without an additional “s,” but there are exceptions.

The Jacobean usage of “justice’ sake” and the quasi-French “chateaux’ roof styles” are cases where the /s/ and /z/ sounds are represented by other letters than “s.”

One extremely useful rule in deciphering where to use “-'s” and where the naked apostrophe is whether the possessive adds an /-iz/* sound to the word as spoken. Thus “Mr. Jones’s house” ends in a /-ziz/ sound not present in the non-possessive form, which ends in a /-onz/ sound, and therefore takes the “-'s”. However, “going over to the Joneses’ to borrow a cup of sugar” is a case where the nominative/objective and the possessive are pronounced identically, and hence takes a naked apostrophe to indicate possession (the Joneses’ house being implied in the colloquial construction). When an additional /-iz/ sound is added in speech to suggest the possessive, use the “-'s” and where not, use the bare apostrophe.

  • Technically, the “i” here is incorrect, as in phonetic representations within slashes, it represents the “i” of machine, and the “English short I” of /-iz/ should be represented by a small capital I in proper phonetic respelling. You will kindly forgive my not wanting to try to code that repeatedly, and take the “i” as representing it for purposes of this post. Thanks.

There are traditional exceptions like this advocated by many styleguides. For example conscience’ sake, appearance’ sake, and rightousness’ sake).

Personally, I have never seen this rule applied to “justice’s sake.” In your example, I always hear the possessive-s pronounced, while in the other examples it’s skipped over.

Actually, now that I think about it, I think I have heard it pronounced as if the possessive-s weren’t there. So I suppose “justice’ sake” can be an acceptable spelling.

I don’t think this is correct AT ALL. There was a bit of an uproar when Bridget Jones’ Diary came out a few years ago. They followed this rule (add on 's to an s) and spelled it “Bridget Jones’s Diary”. This is just so wrong.

I did a search at the time, and IIRC, I believe they roundly said that this was a blatant error - if it ends in s already, the rule is to just add the apostophe. That way you don’t get the awkward looking s’s situation. For example, Jesus’ prayers, Moses’ staff.

From Harbrace:

So what does that say about Bridget? Jones is one syllable. Add 's. Pronounce it Joan-zez.

Other words in the same category as Moses and Jesus are Cassius and Brutus. I’m sure there are others. Those are just ones that my students spotted to show me how wrong I was.

That matter of style is in transition – moving away from the use of the apostrophe. If you are a college student, check with your English professors to see which they prefer. At the moment, either is generally considered correct. Something that I’ve read of yours previous – I can’t remember exactly what – makes me think that you are not a student.

Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Absolutely invaluable.

If you prefer to find things on the web, rather than in a book, start here:

American Heritage Book of English Usage

Columbia Guide to Standard American English

Strunk, Elements of Style