The Writer’s Toolbox – Getting Possessive Part IV

The past few weeks we’ve spent exploring the possessive case. We’ve looked at singular common nouns, plural common nouns, and proper nouns. Now It’s time to get into some of the tricky little exceptions?the ones that stump writers the most. This week we’ll discuss how to handle compound hyphenated words and joint possessives, and the following week we’ll wrap it up with some unique expressions as well as a few formatting notes.

Compound possessives

Compound hyphenated words (like sister-in-law) are confusing to put in plural form, let alone possessive and plural possessive. The general rule is this: add the possessive form to the final element in the compound, even if it isn’t the element that takes the plural.

Example A: Her mother-in-law’s enthusiasm was disconcerting. Here we have the singular compound made into possessive.

Example B: Her husband was raised by two women, so she has two mothers-in-law. This is the plural compound.

Example C: The women agreed that their mothers-in-law’s attitudes were nothing like the stereotypical norm. Here the plural compound?mothers-in-law?is made into possessive form. It’s one of those things That’s grammatically accurate but uncomfortable to be around (like the stereotypical mother-in-law). In cases like this, It’s often advisable to restructure the sentence and avoid the awkward construction.

Joint possessives

Sometimes two nouns appear to possess an item or thing, and the question arises: which noun takes the possessive case, or do both? The answer is that it depends on the nature of the possessing and the item possessed.

If the two or more nouns possess one single thing?for example, ?my mother and father’s house??then the final noun (or second if there are just two) takes the possessive form.

Example D: I liked going to visit my mom and dad’s general store.

If the nouns each possess a separate thing?for example, ?my mother’s and father’s temperaments??then both nouns take the possessive form.

Example E: I remember my mom’s and dad’s stories, and how different they were.

The distinction is important, because the wrong possessive could give the wrong impression.

Example F (possibly incorrect, depending on meaning): I went to a party at Sarah’s and Robert’s house. This is incorrect; if Sarah and Robert maintained the house together, it would be written ?Sarah and Robert’s house?; ?Sarah’s and Robert’s houses? would only be the correct form if Sarah and Robert had separate houses (assuming the party progressed from one house to the other).

Example G (possibly incorrect, depending on meaning): Sarah spent this past summer at her mom and dad’s beach houses. The way this sentence is written implies that the beach houses were owned by both her mom and dad together. That’s fine if her mom and dad had joint ownership, but if they were divorced and had separate ownership they’d not likely appreciate the implication of togetherness.

Example H: Sarah spent this past summer at her mom’s and dad’s beach houses. This sentence indicates that the different beach houses were owned separately by her mom or by her dad.

Next week we’ll move on to nouns that are plural in form and singular in meaning as well as special expressions of time and intent; then we’ll wind up this series on possessives with a few formatting notes to keep in mind. Take a deep breath, review the past articles in the series, and get ready for the homestretch!

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