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Using English Properly: The Possessive Case

1. Introduction

A few months ago, I wrote a couple of blogs on the misuse of personal pronouns and of the relative pronouns who and whom. Today I want to write about the genitive or possessive case. This is a large topic, but I am going to focus only on abuses of this case. The abuses arise mostly from a confusion between making a noun possessive and pluralizing it. It is all about whether you should add an s or an s’. This has always been a bit of a problem, but now it has become a pandemic. Here are some examples:

  1. Notice in elevator about a new janitor: X will work Thursday’s, Friday’s and Saturday’s.
  2. Church bulletin/community notice board: The Jones’s will be in charge of the bake sale.
  3. In an otherwise well-crafted marriage contract: RRSP’s.
  4. In an intraoffice email: I want the clerk’s to attend this meeting too.

I’m sure that you have seen lots of similar examples. They can be found everywhere.

What is the problem with them? The writers were trying to make the nouns plural, but instead made them into unintelligible possessives. I shall review how you do both correctly.

2. The plural of nouns.

You pluralize most nouns by adding an ‘s’. Thus, for common nouns, one street becomes two streets; one rose turns into two roses. The same is true of proper nouns (those that begin with a capital). Thus, Roman becomes Romans, Sunday becomes Sundays (as in a month of Sundays).

Of course, some nouns do not follow this pattern. For example, nouns ending in y form the plural by changing the y to ie and adding an s, as in baby, babies. Words ending in o usually add an s to form the plural, as in piano, pianos, but a few add es to form the plural, as in tomato, tomatoes. And words ending in ss normally add es to form the plural, as in boss, bosses. Further, irregular nouns change their form, as in foot, feet; woman, women; child, children. There are many such exceptions, and they are too numerous to discuss here. In this blog I shall focus on the more common plurals.

The names of people are normally also pluralized by adding an s to the names. Thus, Smith becomes the Smiths. But if the name already ends in a sibilant, as in Jones, we normally add an es to the singular and then Jones becomes ‘the Joneses’.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Suppose that you want to pluralize the letter a. You can’t write, Let’s line up all the as. As is already a word, so pluralizing a as as invites confusion. Hence, in such exceptional cases you form the plural by inserting an apostrophe, as in Let’s line up all the a’s. Similarly, we write, Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

3. Making a Noun Possessive

There are two ways of forming the possessive in English: (a) by adding an ’s to the noun; and (b) by using the of construction. The difference is clear from the following example: This is the arbitrator’s decision; this is the decision of the arbitrators.

Under this heading I shall focus solely on nouns ending in s, because they are the ones that cause most of the problems. There is a simple rule for making such nouns possessive: you just add an ’s to them, whether they are singular or plural.

Thus, we write boy’s if we want to refer to something that belongs to a boy, and boys’ if the reference is to something that belongs to more than one boy. Similarly, we write child’s, children’s (toys), mouse’s and mice’s (holes) and people’s choice.

Note that we add an ’s even if the noun ends in an s or another sibilant such as c, as in pass’s That at least is what most style guides recommend. However, the style guides followed by many newspapers recommend only an apostrophe in that  case. However, in the cases of names of people that are pluralized, we only add an ‘s, as in the Joneses’ boat.

There are also a few exceptions to the rule that you should add an ’s to nouns that end in an s. These include Jesus’, Socrates’, Xerxes’, for conscience’ sake, for goodness’ sake. If the noun is already a possessive, you should not add ’s either. No one would write,  I love McDonald’s’s Big Mac.[1] It looks and sounds silly. The same principle applies to the former department store names, Eaton’s and Simpson’s. They are already possessives, because it is understood that they mean, Eaton’s Department Store and Simpson’s Department Store. Hence, you would never write, I enjoy the Simpson’s’s Christmas display each year. However, you could write, I enjoy the annual Christmas display of Simpson’s. That’s a double possessive and it is perfectly proper.

Note that the noun that is being made possessive is sometimes omitted but is understood. Thus, for example, if I say, I am going to the doctor’s with you, we know that this means, I am going to the doctor’s office with you. The noun, office, was omitted, but is clearly understood. Hence, doctor’s is a possessive; if you use the of construction, it will read ‘the office of the doctor’.

4. Applying These Rules to the above Examples

It will be clear from the above that the writers of the numbered examples in section 1 wanted to make nouns plural, but instead of adding just an s (or es) to the singular nouns, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, The Jones, RRSP, and the clerk, they added an ’s. They did not realize that this made those nouns into possessives. However, the words could not be possessives because that was not their role in those examples.

So, how do you know whether you should add an s (or an es) or an ’s to a noun. Simple. Ask yourself the question whether you can say of the Thursday, of the Jones (which should of course read Joneses), of the RRSP, and of the clerk. If you can, the words must be possessive and the ’s added in those examples would be right. But the answer to your question must be, ‘No, I cannot say of the Thursday, etc’. Therefore, the examples are plurals and all you need to make a noun plural is a simple s (or es). They should read Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; the Joneses; RRSPs; and the clerks.

5. Possessive Pronouns

I should also say a bit about possessive pronouns. These are the possessive pronouns:

Singular         Plural

mine              ours

yours              yours

his                 theirs

hers               theirs

Thus, for example, we might point to a car and say, ‘That is ours’.

We also recognize other possessives:

Singular         Plural

my                 our

your               your

his                 their

her                 their

its                  their

These were once regarded as pronouns but are now usually treated as adjectives (also called ‘determiners’).[2] For example, we might write, ‘That is our car’, in which case, our is an adjective that modifies the noun book.

I have not seen instances of abuse with possessive determiners or possessive pronouns. However, no doubt someone will do so at some point, so it is wise to point out that we do not use an apostrophe with either possessive pronouns or other possessives. Thus, we do not write a possessive as, That is her’s. That is an impossible form, because her functions as an adjective and must therefore be followed by a noun, as in ‘That is her umbrella’. Similarly, we do not write a possessive pronoun as That is yours’s, for a pronoun never takes an ’s. It is already a possessive. Hence, That is her’s and That is yours’s have to be That is hers and That is yours.

As always, there are a couple of exceptions. The pronouns, one, each other, one another, someone, and somebody, do take an ’s to make them possessive. Thus, we would say, ‘I found somebody’s hoody here’.

6. Other Uses and Abuses of the Apostrophe

The apostrophe is used not only to make nouns possessive. It is also used to indicate the omission of letters from a word. We do not normally use contractions in formal writing, but they occur often enough. Indeed, I’ve added a few in this blog, just for fun. The problem is that at least one contraction, it’s, is often confused with the possessive its.

It’s is a contraction of the clause, it is or it has.

  1. Thus, we can say, ‘It’s extremely cold outside this morning’, which means, ‘It is extremely cold outside this morning’.
  2. But you cannot say, ‘Its cold out this morning’. Its is a possessive determiner, whereas you are trying to say, ‘It is cold out this morning’. Hence, you need the contraction, it’s.
  3. Neither can you say, ‘That statement is weird. It’s premise is wrong’. It’s is a contraction meaning, it is, whereas you are trying to say that it (the premise of the statement) is weird. So, you need the possessive, its.

How can you determine which one to use? Simple. When the word is its, substitute the phrase it is for it. Thus, in the case of the second example, ‘Its cold out this morning’, try using ‘It is cold this morning’. If that is what you mean, you must use the contraction, It’s. And in the case of the third example, substitute It is for It’s. If you meant to say, ‘Its premise (that is, the premise of the statement) is wrong’, you need to use the possessive determiner, Its, rather than the contraction It’s.

The problem often occurs because of the automatic corrections made by your text or email editor. Perhaps you typed, its, but your text or email ends up saying it’s.  The algorithms that make such corrections are far from flawless (yes, the alliteration was intentional). Therefore, you need to be on your guard, doublecheck your message, and make the necessary corrections.[3]

7. Conclusion

If you think that all of this is just nitpicking, I draw your attention to the story of a case in New South Wales which illustrates that the omission of an apostrophe can be costly. A former employee of a real estate brokerage firm posted a message on Facebook in which he accused the firm of failing to pay his employees superannuation, that is, the employer’s contribution to Australia’s retirement plan. The post seemed to suggest that the employer failed to pay all the employees superannuation, because the word used was employees, rather than employee’s. If the latter had been used, the reference would clearly have been to just one employee, namely, the disgruntled one. The broker brought a defamation action against his former employee. The employee seems to have brought a motion to dismiss the action on the basis that he was complaining only about his (mis)treatment by his employer. But the motion judge allowed the action to proceed on the ground that the word employees without an apostrophe could be interpreted as a ‘systematic pattern of conduct’ that was deliberate and affected all the employees, in which case it could be regarded as defamatory. The story does not indicate that the plural employees would also have been a possessive and, if it was intended, should have been written as employees’.

Caveat scriptor!

Here endeth today’s lesson.

[1]    Cf. the example in Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed by Bryan A Garner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), s.v. Possessives. D. Double Possessives.

[2]    However, Garner also calls them possessive pronouns and refers to the ‘possessive pronouns’ listed above as ‘absolute possessive pronouns’. See Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), §71.

[3]    Incidentally, the possessive its and the contraction it’s, are not the only pairs that are confused. Another is the relative pronoun whose and the contraction who’s, which means who is. Thus, ‘Whose pen is this”, is correct, whereas ‘Who’s pen is this’ is wrong, because you are asking to whom the pen belongs, not who the pen is. Similarly, we can ask, ‘Who’s that brilliant guy?’ but not, ‘Whose that brilliant guy?’ That would be a non-sensical question.


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