Forming Possessives

Showing possession in English is a relatively easy matter (believe it or not). By adding an apostrophe and an s we can manage to transform most singular nouns into their possessive form:

  • the cars front seat
  • Charless car
  • Bartkowskis book
  • a hard days work

Some writers will say that the -s after Charles is not necessary and that adding only the apostrophe (Charles car) will suffice to show possession. Consistency is the key here: if you choose not to add the -s after a noun that already ends in s, do so consistently throughout your text. William Strunks Elements of Style recommends adding the s. (In fact, oddly enough, its Rule Number One in Strunks Elementary Rules of Usage.) You will find that some nouns, especially proper nouns, especially when there are other -s and -z sounds involved, turn into clumsy beasts when you add another s: Thats old Mrs. Chamberss estate. In that case, youre better off with Mrs. Chambers estate.

There is another way around this problem of klunky possessives: using the of phrase to show possession. For instance, we would probably say the constitution of Illinois, as opposed to Illinois (or Illinoiss ??) constitution.

To answer that question about Illinois, you should know that most words that end in an unpronounced s form their possessive by adding an apostrophe + s. So we would write about Illinoiss next governor and Arkansass former governor and the Marine Corpss policy. However, many non-English words that end with a silent s or x will form their possessives with only an apostrophe. So we would write Alexander Dumas first novel and this bordeaux bouquet. According to the New York Public Librarys Guide to Style and Usage, there are certain expressions that end in s or the s sound that traditionally require an apostrophe only: for appearance sake, for conscience sake, for goodness sake (268). Incidentally, the NYPL Guide also suggests that when a word ends in a double s, were better off writing its possessive with only an apostrophe: the boss memo, the witness statement. Many writers insist, however, that we actually hear an es sound attached to the possessive forms of these words, so an apostrophe -s is appropriate: bosss memo, witnesss statement. If the look of the three ss in a row doesnt bother you, use that construction.

When we want the possessive of a pluralized family name, we pluralize first and then simply make the name possessive with the use of an apostrophe. Thus, we might travel in the Smiths car when we visit the Joneses (members of the Jones family) at the Joneses home. When the last name ends in a hard z sound, we usually dont add an s or the -es and simply add the apostrophe: the Chambers new baby.

Many writers consider it bad form to use apostrophe -s possessives with pieces of furniture and buildings or inanimate objects in general. Instead of the desks edge (according to many authorities), we should write the edge of the desk and instead of the hotels windows we should write the windows of the hotel. In fact, we would probably avoid the possessive altogether and use the noun as an attributive: the hotel windows. This rule (if, in fact, it is one) is no longer universally endorsed. We would not say the radio of that car instead of that cars radio (or the car radio) and we would not write the desire of my heart instead of my hearts desire. Writing the edge of the ski would probably be an improvement over the skis edge, however.

For expressions of time and measurement, the possessive is shown with an apostrophe -s: one dollars worth, two dollars worth, a hard days night, two years experience, an evenings entertainment, and two weeks notice (the title of the Hollywood movie nothwithstanding).

Remember that personal pronouns create special problems in the formation of possessives. See the chart of Noun and Pronoun Cases.

Possessives & Gerunds

Possessive forms are frequently modifiers for verb forms used as nouns, or gerunds. Using the possessive will affect how we read the sentence. For instance, Im worried about Joe running in the park after dark means that Im worried about Joe and the fact that he runs in the park after dark (the word running is a present participle modifying Joe). On the other hand, Im worried about Joes running in the park after dark puts the emphasis on the running that Joe is doing (running is a gerund, and Joes modifies that verbal). Usually, almost always in fact, we use the possessive form of a noun or pronoun to modify a gerund. More is involved, however. Click HERE for further information about using the possessive form with gerunds.

Possessives versus Adjectival Labels

Dont confuse an adjectival label (sometimes called an attributive noun) ending in s with the need for a possessive. Sometimes its not easy to tell which is which. Do you attend a writers conference or a writers conference? If its a group of writers attending a conference, you want the plural ending, writers. If the conference actually belongs to the writers, then youd want the possessive form, writers. If you can insert another modifer between the -s word and whatever it modifies, youre probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use.

  • Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three touchdown passes. (plural as modifier)
  • The Patriots [new] quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, threw three touchdown passes. (possessive as modifier]

Possessives of Plurals & Irregular Plurals

Most plural nouns already end in s. To create their possessive, simply add an apostrophe after the s:

  • The Pepins house is the big blue one on the corner.
  • The lions usual source of water has dried up.
  • The gases odors mixed and became nauseating.
  • The witches brooms were hidden in the corner.
  • The babies beds were all in a row.

With nouns whose plurals are irregular (see Plurals), however, you will need to add an apostrophe followed by an s to create the possessive form.

  • She plans on opening a womens clothing boutique.
  • Childrens programming is not a high priority.
  • The geeses food supply was endangered.

(But with words that do not change their form when pluralized, you will have to add an -s or -es.)

  • The seaweed was destroyed by the fishes overfeeding.


Holidays Showing Possession

A number of American Holidays have possessive forms, and are peculiarly inconsistent. Mothers Day and Fathers Day are easy enough, one parent at a time, and Parents Day is nicely pluralized, as is Presidents Day which celebrates the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln. All Souls Day (Halloween), of course, takes a plural possessive. Veterans Day is plural but not possessive, for historical reasons shrouded in mystery. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has no possessive. New Years Day, St. Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, and April Fools Day all have their singular prossessive form, and so, while were at it, does Seasons Greetings. Note that Daylight Saving Time is neither possessive nor plural.

Compound Possessives

When you are showing possession with compounded nouns, the apostrophes placement depends on whether the nouns are acting separately or together.

  • Miguels and Cecilias new cars are in the parking lot.
    This means that each of them has at least one new car and that their ownership is a separate matter.
  • Miguel and Cecilias new cars are in the parking lot.
    This construction tells us that Miguel and Cecilia share ownership of these cars. The possessive (indicated by s) belongs to the entire phrase, not just to Cecilia.

Another example:

  • Lewis and Clarks expectations were very much the same.
    This construction tells us that the two gentlemen held one set of expectations in common.
  • Lewiss and Clarks expectations were altogether different.
    This means that the expectations of the two men were different (rather obvious from what the sentence says, too). We signify separate ownership by writing both of the compounded proper nouns in the possessive form.

When one of the possessors in a compound possessive is a personal pronoun, we have to put both possessors in the possessive form or we end up with something silly: Bill and my car had to be towed last night.

  • Bills and my car had to be towed last night.
  • Giorgios and her father was not around much during their childhood.

If this second sentence seems unsatisfactory, you might have to do some rewriting so you end up talking about their father, instead, or revert to using both names: Giorgio and Isabels father wasnt around much . . . . (and then Giorgio will lose the apostrophe +s).

Possessives & Compound Constructions

This is different from the problem we confront when creating possessives with compound constructions such as daughter-in-law and friend of mine. Generally, the apostrophe -s is simply added to the end of the compound structure: my daughter-in-laws car, a friend of mines car. If this sounds clumsy, use the of construction to avoid the apostrophe: the car of a friend of mine, etc. This is especially useful in pluralized compound structures: the daughters-in-laws car sounds quite strange, but its correct. Were better off with the car of the daughters-in-law. See the section on Compound Nouns and Modifiers for additional help.

Possessives with Appositive Forms

When a possessive noun is followed by an appositive, a word that renames or explains that noun, the apostrophe +s is added to the appositive, not to the noun. When this happens, we drop the comma that would normally follow the appositive phrase.

  • We must get Joe Bidwell, the family attorneys signature.

Create such constructions with caution, however, as you might end up writing something that looks silly:

  • I wrecked my best friend, Bobs car.

Youre frequently better off using the of-genitive form, writing something like We must get the signature of Joe Bidwell, the family attorney and I wrecked the car of my best friend, Bob.

Double Possessives

Do we say a friend of my uncle or a friend of my uncles? In spite of the fact that a friend of my uncles seems to overwork the notion of possessiveness, that is usually what we say and write. The double possessive construction is sometimes called the post-genitive or of followed by a possessive case or an absolute possessive pronoun (from the Oxford English Dictionary, which likes to show off). The double possessive has been around since the fifteenth century, and is widely accepted. Its extremely helpful, for instance, in distinguishing between a picture of my father (in which we see the old man) and a picture of my fathers (which he owns). Native speakers will note how much more natural it is to say Hes a fan of hers than hes a fan of her.

Generally, what follows the of in a double possessive will be definite and human, not otherwise, so we would say a friend of my uncles but not a friend of the museums [museum, instead]. What precedes the of is usually indefinite (a friend, not the best friend), unless its preceded by the demonstratives this or that, as in this friend of my fathers.

Authority for the section on double possessives: The New Fowlers Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press. Examples our own.

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