Perusing my blog post stats, it would appear that my most popular posts BY FAR are my Grammar Blip posts, specifically the serial comma post and the hyphenation series. I’m truly puzzled by this as I can’t imagine that many people are interested in the nuances of grammar. But as we know, statistics are never wrong (see Mark Twain for confirmation), and so I can only conclude that there are too few grammar gurus out on the Interwebs. To rectify this apparent dearth, I will continue with another short series of posts (three, to be exact) on the potential pitfalls with apostrophes.
Today’s installment is all about the possessive case (indicating ownership). The next installment will cover plurals that use (or do NOT use) apostrophes. The final post in the series will explain a few tangential items related to apostrophes.
But for now, let’s get possessive…
As I mentioned earlier, possessive case indicates ownership (e.g., Huck’s raft). It can also denote relationship (e.g., Jim’s friend), or stand in for an of-phrase (e.g., a dollar’s worth of swear words).
Seems simple enough with just a single noun doing the possessing, right? Just add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ at the end of the noun (Huck + ’ + s = Huck’s raft). No doubt you’re also familiar with the plural possessive of typical nouns. Just add the apostrophe after the ‘s’ that’s already tacked onto the end of the plural noun (villagers + ’ = villagers’ rancor).
Where people sometimes get mired is when they wade into irregular forms. So let’s cover some of those in more detail.
Irregular Plural Form
Sometimes words don’t behave the way we want them to. Sometimes they pluralize in all sorts of unnatural ways. We call these nouns “irregular,” but what we really mean is “damnyankee.” When you come across a damnyankee noun, such as men, women, or children, act as if it’s a singular noun and add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ (children + ’ + s = children’s game).
Plural Form but Singular Meaning
For words that have a plural form but a singular meaning, treat the word as if it is plural. In other words, add an apostrophe but no ‘s’ (politics + ’ = politics’ ramifications).
Names and Titles that End in ‘S’
Sometimes names and titles end in ‘s,’ and you may be tempted to treat them like plural nouns, leaving off the additional ‘s.’ In some applications, like journalism, it is considered acceptable to do this. But generally speaking, a single noun is still a single noun, despite the letter it ends with, and should be treated as such by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s’ (Jesus + ’ + s = Jesus’s chestnut toupee). The same is true with titles, unless the word in the title that ends in ‘s’ is intended to be a plural word (General Motors + ’ = General Motors’ horseless carriages).
Irregular (Damnyankee) Names that End in ‘S’
There are two main exceptions to the above rule. The first is names that end with an ‘eez’ sound, like Euripides, and the second is names that end with a silent ‘s,’ like Descartes. In these cases, even though the name is technically a singular word, you’d add an apostrophe and not the additional ‘s’ (Archimedes + ’ = Archimedes’ owl).
For an in-depth description of compound nouns, check out my earlier post about hyphenation. As for how to make them possessive, just add an apostrophe and an ‘s’ onto the end of the singular form (daughter-in-law’s kitchen). However, if the plural of the compound noun is formed by adding the ‘s’ to the first word in the compound, the best practice for making the word possessive is to rewrite it as part of an of-phrase (the opinion of her daughters-in-law).
This may seem counter intuitive, but when you’re dealing with pronouns (hers, his, its, yours, ours, theirs), do not use an apostrophe. This is because the pronoun you’re using already indicates possession. The apostrophe is extraneous and unnecessary.
Two Nouns as a Unit
When you’re referring to two nouns as a unit, you can drop the apostrophe and ‘s’ combo from the first noun (Tom and Huck’s plan). On the other hand, if you’re referring to different items belonging to two people, add the apostrophe and ‘s’ to BOTH nouns (the duke’s and dauphin’s hats).
Now here’s a tricky one. There is often confusion between a possessive noun and a noun used as an adjective to describe another noun. For example, if you were to talk about a room that belonged to multiple girls, you’d definitely need that apostrophe and ‘s’ (the girls’ room). But if you wanted to refer to the bathroom that girls use, you’d dispense with the apostrophe (the girls bathroom). The ‘girls’ is used here as a plural form of girl to describe ‘bathroom.’
For Apostrophe’s Sake
The common idiomatic expression ‘For XYZ’s sake’ is easy enough to contend with when the noun whose sake you’re referring to ends with any other letter but ‘s’ (Abraham Lincoln + ’ + s = For Abraham Lincoln’s sake). But when the noun ends with an ‘s,’ it is the accepted practice to add just the apostrophe even though the noun is singular (goodness + ’ = For goodness’ sake). It’s damnyankee, I know, but that’s how it is.
When In Doubt…
Keep in mind that if you are ever really stuck, you always have the easy out of rewriting the passage into an of-phrase (the South’s ideals = the ideals of the South).
So that’s it for this installment of Apostro-tastrophe. Stay tuned next time for the riveting discussion of plurals.