Possessives for the grammatically challenged
Okay, I struggled with a title of this post. I thought of “Possessives for Dummies,” but didn’t want to risk a lawsuit from the Dummies folks who have that trademarked. Likewise, “Possessives for Idiots” was a candidate, but I’m fairly sure that set of titles is likewise trademarked. I know, it’s only a blog post, but in this litigious world, even us little guys are targets.
Then I considered “Possessives for Pinbrains,” but I didn’t want to insult any of our readers. In the end, I went with something neutral and more politically correct instead of saying, “IT’S MINE (possessive pronoun) AND I’LL DO WHATEVER THE F- I PLEASE!”
Calm thyself, Rick…
The purpose of this post is to help writers avoid confusing plurals and possessives and to teach when to use and when not to use apostrophes with these.
Scott and I did a post on the apostrophe back in October 2012, but I see too many writers using a possessive when they intend a simple plurals, so I thought it good to revisit the topic and to add some to it. Here’s a link to the previous post:
RULE #1: Simple plurals NEVER use an apostrophe (except in a handful of exceptions, which I’ll mention later). Most of the time, you form the plural of a noun by adding s or es. Some plurals are irregular: man/men, child/children, mouse/mice, goose/geese, radius/radii, etc. And for those wondering, the plural of “mongoose” is “mongooses.”
Again, we’re talking about simple plurals, not possessives. I see writers all the time writing things like “The boy’s ran down the street.” This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
If you have an apostrophe in a word it had better be either a possessive or a contraction (I’m not covering contractions in this post except for it’s below).
Just what is a possessive anyway? The dictionary says it “indicates possession, ownership, or origin.”
“Jack’s money” means Jack possesses the money. He doesn’t own it because it’s (it is) the government’s (possessive) money. “Jack’s fingerprints” and “Jack’s thoughts” show origin. He doesn’t own or possessive them. They originated from him.
The grammar savvy among you will know that possessives are part of the genitive case. English has three cases: subjective (the subject–he), objective (the object of a verb or preposition–him), and the genitive–his). All possessives are genitives, but not all genitives are possessives.
men’s room is a genitive, but the room is neither possessed by, owned by, nor originates from men. Just thought I’d throw that out there.
children’s books can be a possessive (Her children’s toys were scattered around the room.) or just a genitive (She writes children’s books.)
With that under our belt, let’s move on to the problem writers face when it comes to proper use of possessives (and genitives). The most often seen is with its and it’s. The first one is a possessive adjective, the second is a contraction of “it is.”
My dog buries its (possessive) bones in the yard whenever it’s (it is) convenient.
Its here is what we call a possessive adjective that describes the bone by telling us who it belongs to (the dog). The possessive adjectives are: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. There is also a set of possessive pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs. They’re pronouns because they take the place of a noun. My house–The house is mine. Her car–The car is hers.
I bring these up not so much as a grammar lesson but to point out one thing to help you remember the difference between its and it’s. This gives us…
RULE #2: Possessive adjectives and pronouns NEVER take an apostrophe! NEVER.
And this leads us into how we form possessives and the confusion between possessives and plurals (and plural possessives), which is the main topic of this post.
RULE #3: You form the possessive of most singular nouns by adding an apostrophe + “s” to it (‘s):
Marcia’s jewelry, Brian’s car, the horse’s hooves, the car’s tires, the computer’s keyboard, the telephone’s ring, the pencil’s point.
RULE #4: You form the possessive of most PLURAL nouns by adding (‘s) to the plural. If the noun plural ends in “s” (as many will), you add just the apostrophe.
All of the boys’ clothes were covered in mud. (more than one boy with muddy clothes)
All of the boy’s clothes were covered in mud. (one boy with muddy clothes).
Two of the horse’s legs had been injured during the race. (two legs on one horse were injured)
Two of the horses’ legs had been injured during the race. (two of the horses in the race suffered leg injuries).
The child’s bed. (one child, one bed)
The children’s bed. (more than one child share a bed)
The children’s beds. (the children each have a bed of their own)
I eat pancake’s for breakfast. (You ate something belonging to pancake for breakfast? You meant “I eat pancakes for breakfast.”)
The easiest way to get plurals and possessives right is to look at the noun first. Do you intend one or more than one? If more than one, do not use an apostrophe to make it plural. And if you needs it to be possessive, be sure the word is correct as a singular or plural BEFORE you make it possessive and do NOT use an apostrophe unless it is a possessive.
This brings me to the exceptions. It used to be that apostrophes were used for certain plurals: the 1940’s, CEO’s, abc’s, PhD’s (and a few others). This no longer the case. Current usage recommends leaving out these apostrophes (1940s, CEOs, abcs PhDs). The ONLY time you need an apostrophe is to avoid confusion, and normally that will be when referring to alphabet letters individually:
He got all a’s (or As) and b’s (or Bs) in school. (When referring to grade letters as here, you should capitalize them for clarity, and you can leave out the apostrophe.)
He got a lot of bs in school. (Did he earn a bunch of B grades or did his classmates feed him a lot of bullsh–?)
The word bookkeeping contains three sets of double letters in a row: two o’s, two k’s, two e’s.
The rule here is that clarity should come first. If there’s a chance the reader will misread your intent or perhaps derive a different meaning, then either reword (best) or use the apostrophe.
I prefer the apostrophe with individual letters, even en capitalized because As looks too much like I accidentally capitalized the word as, and Bs like I meant BS.
Just for fun, let’s finish up with how to show possession of family names.
A friend of mine who is working on a novel that I’m editing for him mentions two family names (Lancaster and Meyers) and several times gets the plurals and possessives wrong. It’s easy to do.
RULE #5: Form the plural of family names ending in “s” the same way as you form the plural of other nouns ending in “s”–add “es.” And form the possessive from that.
First you begin with the name and be sure you keep it consistent (Meyers not Meyer)
the Lancaster boy; the Meyers boy (referring to one boy of the family, and here the family name is used as an adjective, not a possessive or genitive)
Steve Lancaster’s house; Sarah Meyers’ (or Meyers’s) house
the Lancasters; the Meyerses (referring to the whole family–just as we say “Keeping up with the Joneses”)
the Lancasters’ children; the Meyerses’ children (when referring to the possessive form to show that possession/ownership/origin of the children from the parents’ plural perspective–and note the possessive plural form of “parents'” here)
the Lancaster children; the Meyers children (when simply using the last name as an adjective to define the children as we did with the first example)
I know all these plurals and possessive seem a little (or a lot) confusing, but if you take them one step at a time and remember (1) NEVER AN APOSTROPHE TO FORM PLURALS (except when referring to letters of the alphabet) and (2) YOU NEED AN APOSTROPHE TO SHOW POSSESSION. From those you should be able to figure out most things. When in doubt, look it up, or ask someone you can trust to know the right answer.