Getting Obsessive About the Possessive

Rob Kyff on

Q. A postcard states that a certain company has "over 50 years' experience" in a certain field. Is the apostrophe after "years" necessary? -- Maureen, via e-mail

A. After over 50 years' experience in the field of grammar and usage, I can firmly answer "yes." By convention, it's customary to describe amounts of time and money by using possessives. So we write "four hours' notice" and "two days' pay."

In these cases, the apostrophe is a substitute for "of," e.g., four hours of notice, two days of pay. The need for an apostrophe is even more apparent when a singular noun is involved. We'd say, for instance, "I've had a year's experience," not "a year experience."

But now we need to take a "pregnant" pause...

The phrase "five months pregnant," which superficially resembles "five months' time," does NOT require an apostrophe because "pregnant" is an adjective, and the phrase means "pregnant FOR five months," not "pregnant OF five months."

Q. When using an apostrophe to show ownership, how do you handle a proper noun that ends with "s"? For example, is it Mrs. Winters's dog or Mrs. Winters' dog? Gus's lunch or Gus' lunch? -- Kris Waldron, Wethersfield, Connecticut

A. If Mrs. Winters's dog is a big St. Bernard named "Gulp," he probably ate Gus's lunch.

As the previous sentence suggests, the standard practice in formal English is to add both an apostrophe AND an "s" to singular nouns ending in "s," whether they're common nouns (witness's testimony, glass's contents) or proper names (Kris's question, Shays's Rebellion). This applies even to words in which the "s" isn't pronounced (Arkansas's beauty, "Descartes's theories).


But wouldn't you know it -- this is English, after all -- this rule has four quirky exceptions. The possessive "s" is omitted when the noun ending in "s" is either:

-- a biblical or classical name (Jesus' teachings, Aristophanes' plays)

-- followed by the word "sake" (goodness' sake, righteousness' sake)

-- the name of a corporation, organization or nation (General Motors', United Nations', United States')

-- a personal pronoun (ours, yours, its, theirs, hers)

To confuse matters even further, most newspapers and magazines DO omit the "s" in possessives of singular proper names (Mrs. Winters' dog, Gus' lunch) as well as in possessives of singular common nouns that are followed by a word beginning with "s" (witness' story, glass' shape).

I know that all these exceptions are a lot to swallow. Gulp!

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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