In the English language, we have different ways to show that someone or something is in possession of something else. To be specific, we use either an apostrophe or a possessive pronoun.
The ability to use this is considered a fundamental component of one’s English skill, and as such you should be able to do it with confidence before you sit for the TOEFL.
In this article, I will run through the different ways that we deal with possessive forms in English, and show a couple of common mistakes that everyone should aim to avoid.
What does “possessive” mean?
First of all, perhaps we should address the obvious question of what possession is actually about. This is in some ways rather easy to describe and in others a bit difficult.
At its simplest, possession means ownership of something. For example, in the following sentences, the dog belongs to Karen.
- I’m looking after Karen’s
- The dog is Karen’s.
You can see that the sentence structure has changed, but the actual possessive form is the same. We will discuss this more in the next section. In any case, there is a dog that belongs to a person called Karen.
Possession is not always as simple as pure ownership. It can also be a quality that relates to something or something affiliated with something else, and we use this a lot in both formal and informal English, meaning that it is well worth knowing for your TOEFL test. Let’s look at the following examples to see how it works:
- The company’s finances looked jittery after the recession supposedly ended.
- The government’s chief negotiator was brought in to end the stand-off.
- Scientists have learned a lot about Jupiter’s
We have a few different sorts of example here. In these cases, though, there is no clear ownership in the sense that we saw of someone owning a dog. Rather, in the first example, we have the finances belonging to a company. In the second, it is a negotiator working for the government, and in the third there are moons that orbit a planet. In a loose sense, you could say that the second item belongs to the first, but it is clearly not as simple as that. A company cannot own numbers… but they do sort of belong to the company.
In any of these situations, we need to use a possessive form, so let’s look at how to make it.
Using an apostrophe
You may have noticed in my examples above that each of the entities that “own” something else are presented with an apostrophe and the letter “s”:
This is no coincidence. Each of these nouns is in possession of something else, and so we present the noun with the “’s” at the end, before adding the second noun. This is the most common – and simplest – way of expressing possession in English.
We saw in the first examples that there were two ways of structuring the sentence, though. I could say “Karen’s dog” or “The dog is Karen’s.” This second way is a little uncommon and sounds quite informal, but you might hear it in English from time to time. We might use this structure to emphasize the owner of the thing when there is cause for reasonable doubt.
When we have a word that ends in an “s”, then we need to change the format slightly as we shouldn’t say “s’s”. It just doesn’t look very good. This may be due to the word naturally having an “s” as its final letter, but in most case it is because the word is plural. In such cases, we simply keep the original “s” and add an apostrophe after it:
- Texas’ landscape is famously vast.
- The twins’favourite food is pizza.
In the first example, we have the US state of Texas, which ends in an “s”. The landscape there belongs to it, so we make this a possessive form. In the second, we have the word “twin” but there are two (of course) so we say “twins”. Because both of them have the same favorite, we add an apostrophe after.
You need to be careful using apostrophes because they absolutely do not signal a plural word. We cannot say that there are several of something and show this by using an apostrophe. It is completely incorrect and your TOEFL examiner would notice it easily.
When reading a passage, you must be careful to pay attention to the position of the possessive apostrophe. Look at the two sentences that follow. Can you tell the difference?
- The executive’s decision is final.
- The executives’ decision is final.
In the first example, there is one executive but in the second there are multiple executives. This could be the difference between a right or wrong answer in your test, so pay close attention and don’t forget this fundamental rule.
As you will know, pronouns replace nouns in a sentence, and as such they require different grammar when it comes to possession.
A noun takes an apostrophe but pronouns don’t. In the first example of this article, I talked about Karen’s dog. But what if I change this to use a pronoun because I had already been talking about Karen?
- I saw Karen yesterday. Her dog is very well-behaved.
Now I have replaced “Karen” with “her” and there is no apostrophe. This is because the apostrophe marks possession, but a possessive pronoun already is possessive.
There are various possessive pronouns in English:
Notice that some of these have two forms. This depends on how they are used within the sentence. Look at these examples:
- It’s my
- The camera is mine.
- Is that your package?
- Is that package yours?
In short, when you put the pronoun just before the noun that it owns, you use the first form. When the noun comes first and the pronoun is second, you use the second form. Not all pronouns have this. For men, there is no difference:
- It’s his
- The phone is his.
- In both cases, we just say “his”.
- It’s her
- The phone is hers.
- We change from “her” to “hers.”
You must be careful to avoid the common mistake of confusing “its” and “it’s.” The former is a possessive pronoun but the latter is a contraction of “it is.” In some of those previous examples, I have used “it’s” as a contraction. However, you certainly cannot use “it’s” as a possessive form or you would be penalized by the examiner:
- The cat licked it’s
- The cat licked its
Although it’s easy to make a mistake like this, you should practice so that you avoid it in your exam, or you could lose points.
An exception to the rule
There is an exception here to the rule about using either apostrophes or possessive pronouns, and that is the word “one.” As you may know, “one” is a pronoun that we use in formal English to avoid saying “I” or “you.” It sort of means “everyone.” We say things like, “One must be careful,” when we might that “(all) people must be careful (including me).”
When we say “one” then there is no possessive form and so we must add an apostrophe and “s” to the end of it. This is, to be fair, quite rare, but you may see it in a reading test or you may feel like using it if you are adventurous and wish to use an especially formal style. You might say, for example:
- Computers and the internet have made life much easier in many ways, but one’s patience is nonetheless tested on a regular basis by connection problems and software glitches.
This is a bit more formal than saying “my” or “your” and so it works quite well for academic writing, making the sentence less personal but still referring to the fact that it is the writer’s opinion.