Our irrepressible Indie Editor-at-Larger is back to 'splain another one of those sticky topics that many of us can use a quick brush-up on—possessive nouns. Sit up straight, and you in the back row, pay attention! Class is now in session.
It’s Halloween month, so I thought I’d write about possession.
Now, this is a GUMmy topic, so it’s not about exorcisms and such. It’s about ownership of things. Houses. Graveyards. Toothbrushes. Cars. Maybe even children.
Explaining Genitive Case
In standard English, we form possessive nouns (sometimes called “genitives”—genitive is a grammatical case, like nominative or objective) by using apostrophes. I realize this can be confusing for some people, and I hope I can help straighten things out with this explanation.
Let’s start with a simple singular possessive: Karen’s. (I’m the blogger, so I get to be the first example. You can be the example on your blog.) It’s just the proper name, an apostrophe, and an s. Karen’s book. Karen’s cat. Karen’s laptop.
What if Karen owns something jointly with, say, her husband? Then we only put the apostrophe after the second name, to show they own it together, like this: Karen and Shawn’s house.
What if they both own similar things individually? Then both names get the apostrophe and the s: Karen’s and Shawn’s cars. (She owns one, and he owns one. They’re hers and his, to use the personal pronouns.)
And what if the proper name ends in an s? Well, the current guidance from the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (remember, I’m a fiction editor so CMoS is my guide of choice), says you still add an apostrophe and an s. “If you say it, write it.” So we have Charles, who owns a pair of tap shoes. They are Charles’s tap shoes. This also applies to historical names like Jesus, Moses, and Xerxes. The old guidance said, “use only an apostrophe.” Now, they’re treated the same as Charles. This also applies to names ending in an unvoiced s, like Descartes. We write about Descartes’s philosophy. Remember: if you say it, write it.
Those Tricky Plural Possessive Nouns
Now for the tricky stuff. Most people get the singular possessive nouns right without a lot of fuss, but they lose the thread entirely when it comes to forming plural possessives of proper names. Let’s start with common plural nouns to ease into it.
Horses becomes horses’. Just add an apostrophe. That’s it. That’s how we know it’s a plural possessive; it’s the plural form with an apostrophe added.
The horses’ stalls need cleaning.
There’s a goose in the news lately thanks to some popular video game. The plural of goose is geese. What’s the plural possessive?
The word geese does not end in an s, so we add an apostrophe and an s.
The geese’s honking keeps me awake.
So: if the plural ends in an s, add an apostrophe. If the plural does not end in an s, add an apostrophe and an s.
Mouse is the singular, so it’s the mouse’s cheese. The plural form is mice, so it’s the mice’s cheese. Following the rule, it’s the cat’s toy and the cats’ toys. (Which may or may not be the mice.)
Surname Possessive Nouns
Where most people seem to get lost is when forming the plural and plural possessive of surnames. It’s not difficult, I swear. The rules are basically the same. Let’s look at some examples.
My surname is Conlin. Our family is known as the Conlins. If we were the holiday-card sending type, I would sign our cards “The Conlins.” No apostrophe. There’s nothing possessive here. Just me, saying “Hey, all of us Conlins are wishing you happy holidays.”
That tree in the parlor (or living room, or whatever) is the Conlins’ Christmas tree. The family owns it as a unit, so it’s the plural (Conlins) plus an apostrophe. There’s not another s tacked on to the end.
But what about Charles Dickens? He and his family are the Dickenses, per the standard grammar rules of plurals; the name ends in an s, so we add es. (I once had a fellow argue with me that his family had always been the Dickens’ and he wasn’t going to change it now. You do you, dude. I’m telling you it’s bad English, but you do you.) That tree in their front room is the Dickenses’ tree (form the plural and add an apostrophe).
Keeping Up with the Joneses
What about the Jones family? John Jones owns a car; it’s John Jones’s car. Singular names ending in s take an apostrophe and an s. Collectively, they’re the Joneses. John Jones’s car is in the garage next to the Joneses’ house. Again, form the plural and add an apostrophe.
Here are a few more examples:
The Johnsons’ house
The Simonsons’ house
The Douglases’ house
The dogs’ collars
The deer’s antlers (this one is dependent on context, because the singular and plural forms are identical)
I hope this has helped someone. Plural possessive nouns aren’t the mystery folks often make them out to be. Form the plural according to the usual rule, and then add either an apostrophe (most of the time, this is all you will need!) or, rarely, an apostrophe and an s (as with “deer,” “mice,” and “geese”).
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