Each week here at the Australian Writers’ centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’ll get there, one way or the other.
Q: Hi AWC, only three sleeps until Christmas!
A: Wait, what? It’s still November!
Q: I’m an insomniac.
A: Oh, right. Okay.
Q: Anyway, my question today comes from a podcast my friend and I have started, called “So you want to be a grammar person who can has good sentences”. Each week, we spend an hour correcting each other’s grammar. Cool huh!
A: Sounds like a winner.
Q: Oh it is, and thank you for that review. I shall put a link to it in the show notes.
A: Didn’t you have a question?
Q: Ah yes! It’s actually to do with correcting each other’s grammar. Or is it correcting each others’ grammar? Where does the apostrophe go when you’re writing “others” as a possessive?
A: Yes, good question. And the answer is that it can be–
Q: Please don’t say it can be both.
A: It can be both.
Q: Argh. English! You’re like a bad fortune teller: “You will meet a tall dark stranger… who may be short and of fair hair. Or red. Or no one at all. Fifty dollars please.” Ugh.
A: Well, you’ll be pleased to know there’s only ONE correct answer for your “each other” example.
A: The key is the word “each” – it has thrown a spanner into the works here.
Q: My uncle Howie once threw a spanner into the works. He lost his job as a mechanic. His wife threw a wobbly, then she packed a sad. And a suitcase. He threw in the towel. Then they threw the book at him for damaging the works – really threw him to the wolves. The whole experience really threw him.
A: Are you finished?
Q: I’m through.
A: So, as we were saying. It’s the inclusion of “each” in “each others” that makes it singular. Hence it is each other’s – every time. Even though “each other’s” acts like a see-saw between two parties.
Q: Quite often the local playground is booked out for birthdays. There is regularly a see-saw between those parties.
A: Ignoring that. So of course, once you remove “each” from the equation, the standard rules of apostrophes and possession apply.
Q: So this is where the “can be both” part comes in…
A: Yep. Consider: “After the game, the losing team went to the other’s dressing room to congratulate them.”
Q: Was it a close match?
A: That’s not important.
Q: Okay fine.
A: When it’s clear that the “others” are more than one, then our usual plural possession rules kick in – with the apostrophe after the S. For example: “These two teams had scored more points in the season than all the others’ scores combined.”
Q: That actually all makes good sense. Although I’d probably rewrite it as “…all the other teams’ scores combined”.
A: Good idea.
Q: So, back on the “each other’s” thing – what about the noun that follows it? Do we write it as singular or plural?
A: With examples like “each other’s grammar” or “each other’s company”, it’s easy. But if we said “they were at each other’s throats” – this has been made a plural even though clearly each person has just one throat. The line between logic (going singular) and the modern usage (plural) makes it blurry – and you can use either option.
A: Yep. We’d recommend always trying the singular on for size first (as that’s what it should technically be), but if it sounds more natural as the plural, it’s not the end of the world.
Q: It could be though. “Earth and Mars were thrown into each other’s orbit.”
A: Haha, okay fair point – that would end the world. Either “orbit” or “orbits” would read fine. Also, sometimes it’s simply about meaning. For example, two best friends that “attended each other’s wedding” may be better than attending “each other’s weddings” – which indicates many marriages.
Q: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
A: Of course not. They maybe hadn’t found the right person.
Q: And hey, they’re best friends, so it’s all about sharing life’s ups and downs.
A: That’s pretty much it.
Q: Great timing. I’m to record another episode of my podcast. This week we’re interviewing someone who thinks a semicolon is a digestive disorder.
A: Oh dear…