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Pluralistic: Those Pesky Possessives

Two of the longest sections in most grammar and style guides concern how to form plurals and how to form possessives. Some guidelines are identical—almost no plurals are formed with apostrophes, no matter how many "All Drink's Half Price" signs you see—and some disagree: Is the possessive form of "Texas" rendered as "Texas'" or "Texas's"?

When you put plurals and possessives together, or have more than one possessive, however, you know it ain't going to be easy.

One article said: "In President Obama's and Romneys' cases, fathers — present or absent — are a large part of that cloth." Another referred to "Romney and Obama's biographies. A third talked of "Romney's and Obama's race to November."

Let's first deal with one old possessive "rule." Many people learned that a rendering like "an aide of Romney's" is incorrect. "An aide of" is one possessive, this argument goes (you could say "Romney's aide"), so adding another possessive ("Romney's") makes for a double possessive, a no-no. The Associated Press Stylebook says a double possessive is OK if 1) the second possessive is animate ("He is a friend of John's") AND 2) "The word before of must involve only a portion of the animate object's possessions." ("The friends of John's" is not OK.) And, The AP says, a double possessive is not OK if the second possessive is inanimate ("a friend of the college," not "a friend of the college's"). Got that?

It makes some sense, since you would be more likely to use a simple pronoun instead of a possessive one with the college and say you were "a friend of it" rather than "a friend of its"), but it is a hair split too far. After all, you would say "the college is a friend of mine," not "a friend of me,"so why the unequal treatment?

Of course, you can usually avoid the issue entirely and work around any objection—instead of "a friend of the college" or "a friend of the college's," just say "the college's friend.")

The New York Times Guide to Style and Usage, while advising that the "double possessive" is correct, also says to look both ways before doubling, pointing out "the difference between a picture of Matisse and a picture of Matisse's.

But let's get back to the Romney's and Obama's examples.

When there are two possessives together, but only one "possession," you have to know whether the possession is singular or plural, and whether it is individually and jointly "possessed." That will tell you how many possessives to use.

"President Obama's and Romney's cases" involves a plural possession—"cases"—but Obama and Romney each have at least one. They are individually "possessed," so each of them gets his own possessive: That rendering is correct. In the second example, each has a separate biography, so it should be "Romney's and Obama's biographies." However, the "race to November" is jointly "possessed," so it should be "Romney and Obama's race to November."

Don't get possessed by the "logic" that equal time requires equal apostrophes. That's politics, not grammar.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 18th 2012, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
The point of the double possessive is to allow you to qualify the thing being possessed with a determiner in ways that the possessive noun/pronoun (being a determiner itself) won't. "The college's friend" might well be the only one it has, while "a friend of the college's" is probably only one of many. More, "that friend of the college's" is quite different from "the college's friend", and "two friends of Bill's" is very different from "Bill's two friends".
Thursday October 18th 2012, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Eugene, OR)
A painting of van Gogh is a painting of van Gogh.
Thursday October 18th 2012, 11:57 AM
Comment by: Carolyn Russell
KISS - rewriting sentences as you've described, in many cases, is how my team writes, too. AP Stylebook is our bible at Russell Public Relations, and after using it for more than 30 years (ouch!) sometimes I think I've memorized the whole thing. BTW, I don't know if your readers have considered buyomg the stylebook as a digital license - the search feature is especially helpful.
Thursday October 18th 2012, 11:05 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
'Is THE PATIENT unable to bear THEIR own weight?' THEIR shoud be HIS/HER Using a plural with a singular is used so much now it doesn't seem to matter any more. Even so I don't think it good grammar and it always jars with me.
Friday October 19th 2012, 6:09 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
I don't really like the term "possessive"; I am much happier talking about "connections". If I say "this is my computer",. then I possess it, it's mine, and you can't have it. But if I say "Caroline is my wife", then I don't possess her, she's only mine in a sense, and though I don't want you to have her (in any sense), it's not up to me, it's up to her.

But I am connected, in different ways and to different degrees, to both my computer and my wife. Grammar doesn't recognise those differences, which is why I prefer to talk about connections.

I know it's just terminology, but terminology carries its own baggage.
Sunday October 21st 2012, 11:18 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the presenting a logical explanation for putting apostrophe ('s) and possissive(s) in our everyday communication.
Wednesday October 24th 2012, 5:52 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
But "a book of Shakespeare" is not "a book of Shakespeare's"!

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