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Worker’s or Workers’: Singular Possessive vs. Plural Possessive

In learning any language, it is important to get things in the right order. For instance, the words “worker’s” and “workers’” have all the same ingredients: the noun “worker,” an apostrophe, and an additional -s, but they don’t mean the same thing. So how do you know when to use “worker’s” or “workers’,” using the -s’?

In the case of “worker,” placing the apostrophe between the root word and the “s” (worker’s) makes the word singular possessive or belonging to a single worker. Placing the apostrophe after workers (workers’) makes the word plural possessive or belonging to more than one worker.

When we move the apostrophe from between “worker” and the “s” to after the “s,” it changes the number of workers involved from just one to more than one. So keep reading to make sure you are using the right one at the right time.

The Meaning of Worker

The suffix -er connects to the end of verbs or nouns to make a noun meaning “a person who does” whatever the root word is (source). In the case of “worker,” the -er makes the verb “work,” meaning “to perform a task” into a noun meaning “someone who does work” (source).

In addition to the general sense of “a person who does work,” “worker” can also refer to a kind of insect that gathers food for the hive. It will often be an adjective in this case: a “worker bee” (source).

Does “Workers” Have an Apostrophe?

Whether or not “workers” will have an apostrophe depends on a few factors. If you mean a group of workers without describing something that belongs to them, you should use “workers” without the apostrophe. 

Adding an apostrophe will make “workers” possessive. Without the apostrophe, “workers” means more than one worker. For instance:

  •  The workers are at lunch.

This sentence is correct without the apostrophe because it is not possessive.

What Is the Difference Between Worker’s and Workers’?

The word “worker’s” is a singular possessive noun, and “workers’” is a plural possessive noun, meaning that it shows ownership by more than one worker. Because “worker” is a singular noun, to show ownership, you add an apostrophe and an “s.” 

You can read more about the difference between singular and plural possessives in our article “Kids’ or Kids’: Singular, Plural, and Possessive.” 

The possessive form “worker’s” means “belonging to a worker.” So, for example:

  • The worker’s belt (the belt of the worker).
  • The worker’s truck (the truck of the worker).

In these examples, the second noun, or object, shows the thing belonging to the subject.

Grammar

A possessive noun shows ownership of something else as a possessive determiner, much like an adjective. The most basic form of the possessive noun is the noun with an apostrophe and an “s.” This is the singular possessive form, so, for instance:

  • The neighbor’s dog is loud.
  • My friend’s house is blue.
  • This is my sister’s jacket.

It is important to note that singular nouns ending with an “s” will often receive both an apostrophe and an additional “s” to make them possessive. Here are some examples:

  •  We visited the princess’s castle.
  • I knocked on my boss’s door.
  • The class’s new teacher is nice.

The additional “s” after the apostrophe should help differentiate these words from plural nouns.

Apostrophes With Contractions

We can use apostrophes to indicate more than just possession, so it is important to remember that not all instances of “worker’s” will be singular possessive. In some circumstances, apostrophes can also indicate a contraction.

A contraction involves the combination of two words, and the apostrophe demarcates where we’ve dropped letters to combine those words. For example:

  • Aren’t (Are not)
  • Can’t (Can not)

We might see contractions with nouns and names as well as words such as “there,” “here,” “now,” and with question words. However, it is important to note that we generally do not consider most contractions appropriate for formal writing.

One common contraction involves a noun and the verb “is.” So, you might say “the worker’s on time,” meaning the “worker is on time.” However, this is informal. Other examples include:

  • The car’s ready (the car is ready)
  • The baby’s sleepy (the baby is sleepy)

Fortunately, the difference should become apparent when you substitute “is” into the sentence. If the sentence makes sense by substituting “is” for the apostrophe-s, then it is a contraction. Thus, the context will often help you distinguish between a singular possessive and a contraction.

Substituting “is” to differentiate possessives from contractions can help with the pronoun “it,” which is one of the more challenging possessives. 

In this case, the possessive does not take an apostrophe at all (its). Instead, the version with the apostrophe-s (it’s) is an abbreviation for “it is.” So, an example of correct usage would be:

  •  A tiger cannot change its stripes.
  •  Don’t judge a book by its cover.

It with an apostrophe and an “s,” on the other hand, is a contraction instead of a possessive singular. The best way to decide whether to use “its” or “it’s” is that you should use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” So, since the phrase “it’s dinner time” means the same thing as “it is dinner time,” it is proper to use the apostrophe.

Proper Usage of Apostrophes for Plurals

It is a common mistake to add an apostrophe with an “s” to indicate a plural instead of a singular possessive. Many call this the “grocer’s apostrophe” due to its association with grocery store advertisements: “Apple’s 70 cents a pound!”

This apostrophe is unnecessary and confusing, so you should not use “worker’s” to mean “more than one worker.”

The only time you may use an apostrophe with an -s to make a plural is with lower case letters. This is to prevent the letters from accidentally forming words. So, the correct plural of lowercase letters looks like this:

  • Mind your p’s and q’s.
  • Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Without the apostrophe, the second sentence could easily read, “dot your is.”

Plural Possessives: When to Use Workers’

Again, to make “worker” plural, add an “s” at the end. The word “workers” is a plural noun referring to more than one worker. Now, to show something belonging to more than one worker, you need only add an apostrophe at the end.

You would never say “workers’s” to mean “belonging to more than one worker” because the last -s would be unnecessary.

Typically, when showing a plural possessive, you should use an apostrophe without adding an -s at the end because most possessives already end in an -s.

The placement of the apostrophe will help differentiate “worker’s” (singular possessive) from “workers’” (plural possessive). The first refers to something belonging to one worker, and the second shows something belonging to more than one worker. So, for example:

  •  The workers’ tools are in the truck.

The tools here belong to more than one worker, so you use the plural form “workers.” Notice that the object, the thing belonging to the workers, is plural as well. This could refer to a collection of tools shared by one group. 

You may want to show something that each member of a group has, but they do not share. So, for example:

  • The workers’ lunches are in bags.

In this example, each of the workers has their lunch, but they do not share the same lunch. Therefore, the object “lunch” must be plural as well. You can also show one single object belonging to a group:

  • The workers’ break room is big.

This sentence shows a single thing (a break room) belonging to a group of people (workers).

Where Does the Apostrophe Go in Workers’ Compensation?

The difference between “worker’s” and “workers’” is the difference between singular and plural. To illustrate how you might use this, take the kind of insurance called “workers’ compensation.” Unfortunately, there’s plenty of confusion on how to write the term correctly.

Among official sources, you might see the occasional variance from the norm. For instance, on the official Social Security website, you’ll see an instance of the singular “worker’s compensation” (source). 

However, mostly, the sources all agree that we should spell the term as “workers’ compensation” (source).

In this case, we should understand “workers’ compensation” as compensation that belongs to a group of workers. We can know this because the older term was “workmen’s compensation,” which is plural and possessive (source).

Possessive or Attributive Nouns for Groups

Still, sometimes nouns showing a group’s ownership or participation in something might appear without an apostrophe. Grammarians refer to this as an attributive noun, meaning that it is a noun that functions as an adjective for another noun. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS 7.27) recommends that in group names, you should use the apostrophe, as we have seen with “workers’ compensation.” So, for, example:

  • Players’ association
  •  Actors’ guild
  • Children’s theatre

The only exceptions should be when the proper name leaves it out:

  • Veterans Affairs
  • Publishers Clearing House

Proper Usage of Plural Possessives

Some nouns are plural in form but function as singular because they take on singular verbs. We still punctuate these as plural. For example:

  •  Politics’ meaning
  • Economics’ ideas

This also goes for names of entities such as businesses or publications when they act as a single thing:

  • The United States’ leader
  • The New York Times’ front page

For both examples, the name of the organization is plural, and they take on an apostrophe the same as a plural noun, but they take on a singular verb: “The United States’ leader is the president.”

Possessive Plural Exceptions

Not all plurals follow the apostrophe-plus-s rule. We call some nouns irregular because their spelling changes instead of adding an “s” in their plural form. For example, the plural of “child” is “children,” and the plural of “man” is “men.” They are plural in meaning, but they do not end in an -s like most plural nouns.

Because these irregular plural nouns do not end in -s, they do not follow the apostrophe-plus-s rule. 

For these irregular nouns, add the -s after the apostrophe the same as with a singular noun. For instance, the plural noun “children” takes on the apostrophe and an -s like a singular noun (children’s). So, they will look like this:

  •  The children’s toys (plural of child)
  • The mice’s cheese (plural of mouse)
  • The geese’s wings (plural of goose)

Joint Possessives

When two different nouns are both shown to own something, you might wonder whether one or both terms receive an apostrophe. 

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS 7.23), if the two nouns are closely related and possess the same thing, then only the second thing needs to take the possessive form. So, for example:

  • The workers and the manager’s relationship

Even though the workers “possess” the relationship with the manager, it does not have to take on an apostrophe because the second term, the manager, takes it. However, if the two terms possess individual things, then both should take on the plural form. So, in this sentence:

  • The workers’ and the manager’s uniforms

The workers and the manager all own uniforms, but they do not own the same uniform. Therefore, both terms take on the plural form.

Possessive Nouns With Gerunds

A gerund is a form of a verb that functions as a noun. When we follow a noun with a gerund, the noun will often take a possessive form. This is particularly true when the gerund acts as the subject of the sentence. So, for example:

  • The workers’ talking annoyed the customers.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

In this sentence, it is the talking, not the workers themselves, that annoys the customers. Therefore, the word “talking” acts as the subject, and “workers” takes on the possessive form “workers’.”

Final Thoughts

Both “worker’s” and “workers’” are correct, depending on the context. It is important to know where to place the apostrophe since where the apostrophe appears changes the number of the workers you refer to. 

For instances where you wish to show ownership by a single worker, you use “worker’s.” If you wish to show something belonging to more than one worker, you should place the apostrophe at the end.

By learning correct apostrophe placement and the difference between singular and plural possessives, you can prevent misunderstandings in your writing. The rules that we have reviewed here should guide you into proper usage so that you can communicate clearly.