For instance, in the following sentence:

Is it possible to reset columns' width to default in the message pane?

Can I forget the apostrophe, using "columns width"?

I don't see the possessive/apostrophe being used often all over the Internet.

Is it acceptable? What's the status?

  • 7
    I'm wondering if it should be "columns' widths". Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 0:52
  • 3
    @TheodoreNorvell I think that would be proper only if you were referring to multiple different widths, belonging to multiple specific columns.
    – ElmerCat
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 3:22
  • 7
    "I don't see the possessive/apostrophe being used often all over the Internet". The internet is not generally renowned for high standards of grammatical/syntactic correctness ;-)
    – Mawg
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 9:30
  • 3
    here i would use "column widths".
    – user428517
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 17:22
  • 2
    I'm with @sgroves. It's the width or widths you are concerned with, so column becomes an adjective. No need for possessive, just use column widths. However columns' widths would also be fine for plural possessive, we just don't use it much in tech.
    – ps2goat
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 20:58

5 Answers 5


There are a few limited cases for which an apostrophe is not used to indicate possession. For example, if you're referring to something belonging to it or her, the correct form is its or hers, with no apostrophe.

Such an exception does not apply to column. If you want to refer to the width of a particular column, you would say the column's width. In the plural case, to refer to the width of specific multiple columns, the apostrophe goes after the "s", so the columns' width would be correct.

However, if you're referring to the width in a general sense, rather than to specific a specific column or columns, then column width would be correct.

Your example quote is incorrect without a modifier such as "the", so it should be:

Is it possible to reset the columns' width to default in the message pane?

... but note that this refers to specific columns that need to be previously introduced in the context. Otherwise, for a general context applying to all columns it should be:

Is it possible to reset column width to default in the message pane?

  • 2
    I agree with this answer, except I may sometimes add the definite article ("the column width") depending on context. As a programmer, I often have to write descriptive text like this, and it can negatively impact readability to use possessives. Since "column width" will likely map to user interface elements and internal parameters within the software you are describing, it can and should be used in the documentation in order to avoid ambiguity.
    – Echelon
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 16:21
  • @Echelon: Well of course, in most programming languages, the ' has a specific meaning, and cannot be used as part of a variable name. So the s at the end of a word should really only be used for pluralization. Thus I'd expect a variable named "columnsWidth" to describe the combined width of multiple columns. To the answer above, I'd add that the only exceptions to the apostrophe rule for possessives are specifically pronouns. Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 20:22
  • Specifically pronouns are the exception to the possessive apostrophe rule (as far as I'm aware). His, hers, theirs, its, yours, mine, etc. Not an apostrophe in sight. Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 20:10

If you want the possessive form, the apostrophe cannot be omitted. But in the specific case of columns' width, we may just write column width, which is a noun phrase with width modified by column.


For "correct" grammar, you need the apostrophe. Sometimes people forget, don't know, or don't care, which is probably why you'll see (or rather, not see) a lot of missing apostrophes on the net.

  • 3
    You see a lot more superfluous apostrophes than missing ones. OK you can't see the missing ones.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 8:17

Well, it's not always true, a word can be possessive without using an apostrophe.

There was an alien in the UFO. We found its remnants at the crash site.

  • Apart from "it" and other pronouns can you find another exception? I think not.
    – Octopus
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 17:53
  • What about the Lloyd's insurance company? Do you use another apostrophe for Lloyd's' customers, or is one enough? (I don't know, just asking).
    – gnasher729
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 18:05

No, an apostrophe is never dispensable for indicating that a noun is being used in the possessive case. You may sometimes see a noun being used as an adjective (the example of column width, above), but that it not an example of a possessive (column's width). The need for an apostrophe to signify the possessive is (with the exception of pronouns) one of the few rules of English spelling that has no exception.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.