(This post has been sitting unpublished for months—oops.)
Lately, I’ve been seeing these mistakes everywhere—from blog posts, to newspapers, to professionally edited and published books. I doubt they’re actually much more prevalent lately, it’s more likely that I’m just noticing them more and am increasingly bothered by them. It’s surprisingly difficult not to correct people all the time (I sometimes slip up.) Part of my strategy for coping is to write things like this post, so I can chew glass without aiming my wrath at any particular poor soul.
Correcting these poor habits can be a double-edged sword: often people are so attached to the incorrect “rules” they’ve internalized that they will try to correct your already correct English.
Words that end in s are not special
You still make them possessive in the usual way
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the variations in spelling and apostrophe usage exist to match pronunciations, not to avoid having an s on both sides of an apostrophe. When you leave an s off of words that require it, you’re changing how the words sound, both when said aloud and in your readers’ heads.
Most words are made possessive by adding ’s. This includes words that already end in s, with a notable exception: words that are made plural by adding an s are then made possessive by adding just the apostrophe. Words that don’t have an s after the apostrophe are pronounced the same as words without an apostrophe. Words that have an s after the apostrophe are, for the most part, pronounced the same as the plural of the same word. An apostrophe by itself doesn’t affect the pronunciation at all.
- I was called into my boss’s office.
- Boss’s sounds like bosses.
- Boss’ would sound like boss.
- Boss’s, bosses, and bosses’ all gain both an s sound and an s, in some fashion.
- “The officers ate at the officers’ club.” Same pronunciation, same spelling.
Say the word aloud. If it has an extra s sound at the end, then write it after the apostrophe.
They are not their own plurals
Words that end in s are made plural by adding es, not an apostrophe, ’s, or by leaving the word unmodified. Some get an additional s before the es, like gasses, but some don’t, like lenses. A lone apostrophe is then added to make the word possessive, if applicable.
- I met with my two bosses to discuss the lenses’ specifications.
First names are not special cases
Both of these rules apply to names. First names that end in s get an additional s, no exceptions. That includes, for instance, Curtis’s, Atticus’s, Jesus’s, Chris’s, James’s, and Charles’s. To make them plural, add es. To make them both plural and possessive, add es’.
- I went with the Rosses to Charles’s house.
- He sat at the Jameses’ table during lunch.
If you say Chris’s and spell it Chris’, that’s not a stylistic choice: you’re leaving off an entire syllable, and are just plain misspelling it. This applies doubly to contractions. Writing Chris’ waiting in the car is just nonsense.
Last names aren’t, either
Due to widespread pronunciation of some last names when they’re made possessive (like Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood), there is disagreement as to whether an additional s is required after all last names that end in s, or only some. Generally speaking, the widely-accepted, easiest, and most consistent rule is to add the s if you say it aloud.
These names can trick the ear, though, and out of context they might sound as if an s isn’t pronounced, when it is in common practice. For instance, “Mr. Jones’ classroom” would be pronounced the same as “Mr. Jone’s classroom,” which might sound natural. However, “Mr. Jones’s classroom” would match the pronunciation in actual usage.
For what it’s worth, I always write (and say) the s, with the occasional exception for certain phrases, like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Last names are made plural the same as other words: by adding an es. This is reflected in the expression “keeping up with the Joneses.” They are then made possessive by just adding an apostrophe. Last names are left alone if they’re being used as adjectives.
- Steve Jobs’s legacy
- Bernie Sanders’s campaign
- The Jones family is going to the Adamses’ for dinner.
- The Reynoldses went to Disney World with the Smiths.
Other things that technically aren’t even words
An initialism that ends in S isn’t plural, so it always gets ’s to make it possessive, even if the word it stands for arguably wouldn’t. This one perplexes me, because it’s impossible to mishear these mistakes as correct, and the act of speaking them (aloud or in your head) is identical to spelling them, so it should be obvious they’re missing a letter.
- The U.S.’s sestercentennial is in 2026.
For that matter, initialisms, acronyms, and decades are made plural by adding a lone s without an apostrophe. An apostrophe is never used to make anything plural.
- CDs and PINs, not CD’s or PIN’s.
- 1990s, not 1990’s
Between you and I, this bakes my beans
A common over-correction is to avoid ever saying “you and me.” This is often incorrect, as I is used for a subject, and me for an object. This applies, to a lesser extent, to other pronouns. In all cases, the mental fix is simple: remove the other person, and suddenly that I starts to sound pretty weird: That gift is from Bob & I becomes That gift is from I, which is clearly wrong.
Use I, she, he, they, or who when the person is the one doing something. Use me, her, him, them, or whom when something is being done to the person or in relation to the person.
- Just between you and I…
- I went with Bob and him to the bar last night.
- When is a good time for you to meet with Bob & I?
- “I don’t know who they’re angry at, Hillary, you or I.”
- Just between you and me, I think it’s terrific.
- Do you want to go with me and Bob?
- These tickets were given to me and Bob to share.
- Bob and I are not fond of her.
- She and Bob went to lunch already.
- “I don’t know at whom they’re angry, Hillary, you or me.”
It’s from bits
It’s is a contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form of it. It might be easier to remember that, as a group, pronouns don’t get apostrophes to make them possessive. E.g., theirs, hers, his, yours, whose, and ours are other words that don’t get an apostrophe.
- It’s going to be a nice day.
- Its average temperature will be 72.
People’s, not peoples’
Irregular plurals (people, men, women) are made possessive by adding ’s. The apostrophe is only placed at the end of the word if an s is not added, on account of the word already being a regular plural ending in s.
In all cases, it is a question of adding simply a lone apostrophe if the pronunciation doesn’t change, or an apostrophe followed by an s if it does. In no cases is an s added followed by an apostrophe simply to make a word possessive.