Q&A: Some people are so possessive

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation…

Q: Hi there, I have a question about possession.
A: What kind of possession? We don’t perform exorcisms here – just provide answers.

Q: Possession in grammar.
A: Nope, sounds like you need a priest. How old is she?

Q: No, not grandma. Grammar! You know, like when apostrophes should be used and where.
A: Oh! Sure, those are usually called “possessives” and we can help with them. What area in particular?

Q: Proper nouns – names and places.
A: Hang on, how come we’re asking all the questions today? Aren’t you the Q and we’re the A? Anyway, okay. Easy stuff first – if you have a character named Simon, and you want to show that Simon owns something, you simply add apostrophe + s on the end. i.e. “Simon’s pet snake escaped from the tank.”

Q: And what if a name ends in s?
A: Some say proper nouns ending in a “s” or “z” sound (e.g. James, Mr Jones, Cairns) look silly with another s, so tend to opt for just the apostrophe on the end: “James’ puppy has gone missing and Simon still hasn’t found his pet snake.” Or “Mr Jones’ leg started swelling after being bitten by a snake in Cairns’ main street.” It is also often preferred for historic names – like Jesus or Moses. Meanwhile, many style guides are staunch on sticking to the same rules as every other word, so: “James’s puppy”, “Mr Jones’s leg” and you might change it to “the main street of Cairns” to avoid weirdness on the last one! Whether you choose to add the ’s’ or not, just remember to stay consistent.

Q: And proper noun plurals?
A: This is where things get even more fun, and it’s most common in surnames. The simplest way to approach it is to convert to a plural form first, and then add an apostrophe to the end. So the Obama family has a dog. The dog lives with the Obamas. And it’s the Obamas’ dog. Meanwhile, the Davis family has a cat. It lives with the Davises. So it’s the Davises’ cat. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” isn’t possessive (no apostrophe), it’s simply a plural of “Jones” – but it points to wanting a house just like the Joneses’ one.

Q: So that’s last names, but what about first names or place placenames?
A: Well, it’s far less common to see these as plurals, let alone possessive ones – but it’s exactly the same form. So if there were three children named Cooper in a class at school, the teacher would say “can all the Coopers see me at lunch time” (plural) or “I have spoken to all three Coopers’ parents about talking in class” (possessive plural). This distinguishes it from only one naughty Cooper in class, which would mean talking to just Cooper’s parents.

Q: Can you quickly cover irregular plurals too?
A: Sure. There are two kinds – ones that don’t end in ‘s’ like “children” or “women” or “mice“ and ones that do, like “halves” or “parties”. To make these possessive, just treat them like singular nouns – adding apostrophe + s to get “children’s”, “women’s” and even “mice’s”. But just the apostrophe for the others: halves’ or parties’… Remember: there is no such word as “childrens” or “womens” – that’s a plural of a plural, and doing that can give you pleurisy.

Q: Did Simon ever find his snake?
A: No, it was last seen heading towards your house.

Q: Haha. Well finally, can you tell me if it should have been “George and Amal’s wedding” or “George’s and Amal’s wedding”?
A: The correct answer is there shouldn’t have been a wedding and George should have stayed single. But grammatically, you’re describing a compound possessive situation. And with two people, if they both own the same thing, you only need to add the apostrophe + s to the second one. “George and Amal’s wedding” is the correct version.

Q: If I had George, I’d be the possessive type too.
A: Nice. But if each person owns a separate thing, you add apostrophes to both – so it’s “Brad’s and George’s recent wedding ceremonies.”

Q: Brad too??? Why! Whyyyy!!!
A: We know; it’s the Pitts

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