#amwriting: genitives and possessives: when good apostrophes go bad

they're their there cupEvery now and then I’m reading along and I’m jarred out of the book by the improper use of an apostrophe. Yeah I know, that seems pretty minor, but think about it: apostrophes denote possession (and I’m not talking demonic here).

Things to remember:

  1. Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  2. Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  3. Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  4. Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Quote from grammar-quizzes.com:

“Whose replaces a genitive personal or inanimate noun in a relative clause. While some people may object to the usage of whose with an inanimate noun, grammarians approve of it and cite its usage by highly esteemed writers.” (end quoted text)

What does that slightly complicated explanation really mean?

Let’s look at some definitions:

Genitive: The genitive case is the grammatically correct term predominantly used for showing possession. Nowadays words falling into that category are more frequently referred to as possessive, which is simpler. With nouns, it is usually created by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s”: ’s to the word or by preceding it with the word: of.

  • John’s blue eyes.
  • The rim of the cup.
  • It is the cat’s possession, a possession of the cat, or a possession owned by the cat. (Universal fact: cats own everything.)

However, the genitive case is not always about possession and, for this reason, the word genitive won’t completely fall out of favor in the English language. Grammar-Monster.com says:

  • Dan’s bike (No one would argue this is the genitive case and the possessive case. It is the bike of Dan. It is about possession.)
  • Children’s songs (This is not about possession. It’s about songs for children. For this reason, some argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.)
  • Constable’s paintings (This is not about possession. It’s about paintings by Constable. Some would argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.) (end quoted text)

Grammar-Monster also says:

“Possessive adjectives and possessive personal pronouns are also forms of the genitive case.” Examples:

  • our carpet (our – a genitive form of we)
  • Can I use yours? (yours – a genitive form of you) (end quoted text)


When referring to living beings, whose denotes possession and who’s is a contraction that refers to existence: who is.

So now we have some idea of “whose” versus “who’s.” But what about “It?”

Dealing with possession by the inanimate—we don’t need an exorcist, although a good maid service could probably help. But in this case, we are referencing something owned by  the inanimate:

  • The texture of the wall —it’s rough. (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (The wall’s surface.)

Its…it’s…which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In probably 99% of English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but once in a while, it indicates a contraction.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it.

it's and whose

Contractions (e.g., let’s, don’t, couldn’t, it’s, she’s) have a bad reputation in educational and formal writing. Many argue that they have no place at all in formal writing. If you are writing a thesis, you should observe your publisher’s or instructor’s requirements.


However, in writing fiction, avoiding contractions makes your writing appear stilted and hyper-formal. If you are serious about the craft, you will learn the exceptions to the rules when it comes to apostrophes, and not accidentally mingle possessives in with your contractions.



Filed under Self Publishing, writing

5 responses to “#amwriting: genitives and possessives: when good apostrophes go bad

  1. My editor and I had a really tough time with dry cleaners and jewelers in my last novel. In the US we say the words as if they are generic places rather than as a place someone owns (possessive). But technically they are possessives. I think we settled on not using apostrophes.

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    • My editor is from the UK too, and we regularly have to work out the knots, as I want to keep to US usage (Chicago Manual). And several of my clients are from the UK, so I keep a copy of the Oxford A–Z on my desk when working with them. In several ways, US and UK have two distinct usages.

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  2. This is good ~ could have used it when I was a kid, but thankful I have it now 🙂