Burgess Laughlin

Novices' rules for forming possessives

12 posts in this topic

The following rules for novices are what I have learned (I hope) about forming possessives.

POSSESSIVE SINGULAR

Which of these sentences is correct?

1. I saw Bill's book.

2. I saw Bills' book.

3. I saw Bills book.

When attached to a singular noun, an apostrophe (') and s together ('s) show possession. So, sentence 1 is correct. "Bill's" is the genitive (possessive) case of "Bill."

POSSESSIVE PLURAL

Which of these sentences is correct?

4. The puppies's tails were short.

5. The puppies' tails were short.

When attached to a plural noun that already ends in s, such as puppies, an apostrophe by itself (without another s) shows possession. So, sentence 5 is correct. However, if a word, such as children, is plural, but does not end in "s," then add an apostrophe and s to show possession: "Where is the children's book?"

ALTERNATIVE CONSTRUCTION

As an alternative to an apostrophe, with or without an s, a writer can use the preposition "of," the preposition "for," or other words to show possession:

6. I saw the book that Bill owns.

7. The tails of the puppies were short.

8. He walked toward the waiting-room for passengers. [instead of "the passengers' waiting-room."]

AN EXCEPTION

Here is a word that looks like it uses a possessive apostrophe and s, but does not: it's.

The word it's is a contraction of it is. The apostrophe (') here shows a letter (i) is missing. To form the possessive of the pronoun it, simply add an s with no apostrophe. This is the opposite of what you would expect, but that's English.

Correct example uses are:

9. I haven't read the book; I wonder who its author is. (Possession)

10. Well, it's about time you showed up, John. (Contraction)

Unfortunately, English has additional rules for forming possessives for special kinds of words. Those special uses can be the subject of other posts in this thread.

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AN EXCEPTION

Here is a word that looks like it uses a possessive apostrophe and s, but does not: it's.

The word it's is a contraction of it is. The apostrophe (') here shows a letter (i) is missing. To form the possessive of the pronoun it, simply add an s with no apostrophe. This is the opposite of what you would expect, but that's English.

That's not actually an exception, it's an example of a more specific rule, that pronouns do not take the apostrohe (see hers, theirs, yours, also whose which does have an exceptional e in the spelling).

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I'd like to emphasize that the first rule (about forming the possessive of a singular noun) applies even to singular nouns that already end in s. It's correct in this case to add an apostrophe followed by an s, not just an apostrophe. For instance:

I saw Mr. Lewis's book.

vs

I saw Mr. Lewis' book.

The first one is correct. Yet people mistakenly use the second form frequently; I even see it in print sometimes. (Woe is I, by Patricia O'Conner includes a discussion of this case. I used to make the mistake myself sometimes until I read her clear explanation.) This isn't an exception to the rule Burgess gave - the same rule is used whether the singular noun ends in s or not.

As for the possessive pronouns, it's clear that each pronoun does not take an apostrophe to create its possessive form :) .

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POSSESSIVE PLURAL

Which of these sentences is correct?

4. The puppies's tails were short.

5. The puppies' tails were short.

When attached to a plural noun that already ends in s, such as puppies, an apostrophe by itself (without another s) shows possession. So, sentence 5 is correct.

I'd like to emphasize that the first rule (about forming the possessive of a singular noun) applies even to singular nouns that already end in s.  It's correct in this case to add an apostrophe followed by an s, not just an apostrophe.  For instance:

I saw Mr. Lewis's book.

vs

I saw Mr. Lewis' book.

When attaching a possesive ending to a noun that ends in s adds an additional syllable to the word, then I add an apostrophe and s and not just an apostrophe.

That would account for Mr. Lewis's book as well as Betsy Ross's flag.

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I just came across this line in a sonnet by Sidney---"The boy refused for fear of Mars's hate." The extra syllable born of the apostrophe and "s" fits the rhythm of the line, but would we say, today, in prose,----we are studying Mars's surface or Mars' surface? The former sounds awkward to me, though maybe it takes getting used to. Is the fact of sounding awkward, especially if so to many people, a proper reason to not use it?

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I just came across this line in a sonnet by Sidney---"The boy refused for fear of Mars's hate."  The extra syllable born of the apostrophe and "s" fits the rhythm of the line, but would we say, today, in prose,----we are studying Mars's surface or Mars' surface?  The former sounds awkward to me, though maybe it takes getting used to.  Is the fact of sounding awkward, especially if so to many people, a proper reason to not use it?

When I write, I NEVER write anything that sounds awkward to me no matter how grammatically correct it is supposed to be. If I don't like the way something sounds, I try to come up with a alternate way of saying the same thing. That editing practice helped me write more precisely and elegantly.

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When I write, I NEVER write anything that sounds awkward to me no matter how grammatically correct it is supposed to be.  If I don't like the way something sounds, I try to come up with a alternate way of saying the same thing.  That editing practice helped me write more precisely and elegantly.

I think that is the proper way to write (or "a" proper way, at least). I heavily trust my ear for grammar as I write, and if something sounds off or I stumble trying to put a sentence together, I at that point focus consciously on the rules of grammar to hunt down the cause of the problem. But ideally, one's focus when writing should not be on the grammar, but on the content and the choice of how to present it.

Language that is too formal, too rehearsed comes across to me as rationalistic. It also smacks of pretension, such as in the writings of William F. Buckley.

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It gets more interesting.

How about when a person's name ends in "s"?

The Wall Street Journal uses "Gov. Davis's" but Forbes and the L.A. Times would use "Gov. Davis' ". As fas as I can tell, both are acceptable.

Now the trickier part: Are they pronounced the same, and how?

Does anyone know?

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The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, sections 6.19-6.30, offers an approach I like best (with some modification):

GENERAL RULE: For showing possession in a singular noun, add 's as in "horse's mouth."

That applies to proper names too. For example, "the cup of Davis" is "Davis's cup."

The CMS recognizes (reluctantly) exceptions for the sake of euphony. An example is "for appearance' sake." I disagree with this. I keep the simpler rule and just add an "apostrophe s" no matter what: "appearance's sake." Why complicate matters for the sake of alleged euphony? (I have no trouble saying "appearance's sake.")

Another traditional exception which the CMS accepts is using only an apostrophe for Jesus and Moses (as in "Jesus' disciples"), but why kowtow to Christians who don't like sibilants?

Still another supposed traditional exception that the CMS accepts is to add only an apostrophe to proper names that end in a "z" sound. An example is "Xerxes' army." But why? Again only for supposed "euphony." I prefer to keep things simple: "Xerxes's army."

The CMS notes that issues of possession are the most contentious of all issues among careful writers. The CMS rightly points out that the most important thing a writer can do is be consistent. Of course, if a writer is writing for a particular publication that has a particular and peculiar style guide, the writer should follow that guide.

I am glad this issue came up. I have been wrestling with Jesus and Celsus, so to speak, and now I have decided to either use a prepositional structure or follow the simple rule of adding apostrophe-s to show possession for any singular noun: "Jesus's followers" and "Celsus's rationalism." I do not see how any reader could be confused by that, in context.

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Now the trickier part: Are they pronounced the same, and how?
The apostrophe does not signal a difference in pronunciation, and that is basically why it is used (because there is no difference in pronunciation). Regular plurals are formed by adding -s ("cats, dogs"), and so are possessives. Plural nouns can be possessors (see "children's" or "mice's" as in "The mice's combined mass was less than that of Jupiter"). But when you try to combine the regular plural -s and the possessive -s, only one of them can be used, so you say "The dogs' tails all need washing" and not "The dogses tails all need washing". The popular "euphony" explanation for multiple-s reduction isn't totally without merit, but it overstates the case, since this simplification thing is only about s-plural and the possessive suffix. The distinctive placement of the apostrophe then tells you whether you have a possessive plural, possivive singular, or non-possessive plural (which are all pronounced identically).

It's quite obvious (to a native speaker of English) that phrases like "Davis's mansion" -- however you spell it -- has two s's, and a vowel betwixt them (it sounds exactly like "Davises" as in "The Davises and the McCoys fought for generations"). To invoke the apostrophe-s rule in LA Times fashion for "Davis'" is just plain wrong. It is not pronounced the same as "Davis". It just indicates that the editors didn't understand the rule for using s' in the first place. I'd have to do more research into examples like "Xerxes' army": while I disagree with the implied pronunciation (I would say "Zurkseezez") that might just be my curmudgeonry showing through, and perhaps some people do really say "Zurkseez" in that context.

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The apostrophe does not signal a difference in pronunciation, and that is basically why it is used (because there is no difference in pronunciation). Regular plurals are formed by adding -s ("cats, dogs"), and so are possessives. Plural nouns can be possessors (see "children's" or "mice's" as in "The mice's combined mass was less than that of Jupiter"). But when you try to combine the regular plural -s and the possessive -s, only one of them can be used, so you say "The dogs' tails all need washing" and not "The dogses tails all need washing". The popular "euphony" explanation for multiple-s reduction isn't totally without merit, but it overstates the case, since this simplification thing is only about s-plural and the possessive suffix. The distinctive placement of the apostrophe then tells you whether you have a possessive plural, possivive singular, or non-possessive plural (which are all pronounced identically).

It's quite obvious (to a native speaker of English) that phrases like "Davis's mansion" -- however you spell it -- has two s's, and a vowel betwixt them (it sounds exactly like "Davises" as in "The Davises and the McCoys fought for generations"). To invoke the apostrophe-s rule in LA Times fashion for "Davis'" is just plain wrong. It is not pronounced the same as "Davis". It just indicates that the editors didn't understand the rule for using s' in the first place. I'd have to do more research into examples like "Xerxes' army": while I disagree with the implied pronunciation (I would say "Zurkseezez") that might just be my curmudgeonry showing through, and perhaps some people do really say "Zurkseez" in that context.

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Oops, sorry, didn't mean to quote all of that.

I agree with the Xerxes pronunciation; that is how it was taught to me. I am a little surprised that Forbes would get it consistently wrong (L.A. Times never surprises me anymore).

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