The Writer’s Toolbox – Getting Possessive, Part II

More Than One

In last week’s Toolbox, we began tackling the possessive form of nouns. We covered two basic rules for singular common nouns:

1) A singular common noun that does not end in -s forms the possessive by adding an apostrophe + s.

2) A singular common that does end in -s also forms the possessive with an apostrophe + s, unless the word that follows it starts with an s or sh sound and You’re following AP or Canadian style.

If you need a refresher, skim the first part of this series here. Otherwise, we’ll move on to plural common nouns and look at a few writing pitfalls that may arise when You’re trying to choose between singular and plural forms.

General rule for plural common nouns

For most plural nouns, the possessive is formed by adding an apostrophe to the plural form.

Example A: The students? research turned up interesting data.

There’s no extra s added, which is logical when you try to voice the word aloud. A good way to remember this is to think of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies. Since you wouldn’t normally add an –-es syllable to a plural word (?students-es??), you don’t form the plural possessive by adding an s with the apostrophe.

don’t forget, though, that the apostrophe is required! In informal communication this punctuation mark is often dropped, but without it you do not have the possessive form:

Example B (incorrect): The witnesses testimony was persuasive. This is the plural form, not the plural possessive form.

Example C (incorrect): The witnesse’s testimony was persuasive. This is incorrect plural possessive form.

Example D (correct): The witnesses? testimony was persuasive.

Irregular plurals

Irregular plural nouns are nouns that don’t form the plural by simply adding an ?s or ?es to the noun. Some examples are children, mice, loaves, phenomena, appendices, and teeth. Of these, irregular plurals that end in an ‘s (loaves, appendices) still follow the general rule for making plural nouns possessive: add an apostrophe.

Example E: The loaves? crumbly texture sent me back to the drawing board.

However, irregular plural nouns that don’t end in -s are an exception to the general rule for plurals. They add an apostrophe + s.

Example F: The children’s noise gave me a headache.

Sometimes this gives unusual results.

Example G: The mice’s loud squeaks alerted me that something was wrong. Does that look strange? Grammatically It’s correct, but if a possessive form looks that awkward, restructure the sentence to avoid using it at all.

Example H (avoids the plural possessive entirely): I knew something was wrong when I heard the loud squeaks coming from the mice.

Singular versus plural

A caution: because the two forms are similar, many writers (and businesses!) use the singular possessive when the plural possessive makes sense. Before deciding which rule to apply, ask yourself who’s doing the possessing or to whom the possessed item or quality belongs. If It’s just one person, place, or thing, use the singular form (apostrophe + s); but if It’s more than one, follow the general rule for plural (apostrophe only).

Example I (incorrect): The student’s union is holding elections. This is incorrect, because the union belongs to multiple students, not just one student.

Example J (correct): The students’ union is holding elections.

In some circumstances, either form is arguable, but the choice may alter the meaning. For example, this column is called ?The Writer’s Toolbox? because It’s intended as a toolbox for the writer in general. Calling it ?The Writers? Toolbox? could create ambiguity (is it for a specific group of writers or just ?the writers,? whomever they are? Or is it a toolbox created by ?the writers??). When in doubt, try substituting a different word and see whether singular or plural makes more sense.

In next week’s Toolbox we’ll get a little deeper into the possessive case and tackle proper nouns. For now, add the basics on plural possessive to the cheat sheet you started last week. Once again, the general rule for plural common nouns is to add an apostrophe for all regular plural forms (ending in ?s or -es). For those irregular plurals not ending in ?s or ?es, add apostrophe + s. And when It’s all too awkward, even in correct form, consider reworking the sentence to avoid the problem entirely.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.

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