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Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.

 

Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm


Apostrophes and Proper Nouns

Take a close look at this sentence about the great playwright Tennessee Williams: It’s Tennessee William’s best play. Note the placement of the apostrophe. It disfigures the name Williams—how could that be right? Here’s a rule to live by: Forget the apostrophe until you write out the entire word. A correct possessive apostrophe can never entangle itself within any word. So by writing Williams out first, you can avoid a lot of trouble.

The trouble that can’t be avoided comes next, because there are conflicting policies for writing possessive proper nouns that end in s. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends just an apostrophe: It’s Tennessee Williams’ best play. But most other authorities endorse ’s: Williams’s.

Williams’s means “belonging to Williams.” It is not the plural form of Williams. People’s names become plural the way most other words do. Only rank amateurs think the plural of cat is cat’s. Names are no different. They seem different because of human vanity: we’re somehow reluctant to compromise the “purity” of Smith so we mistakenly write the Smith’s, adding the apostrophe to establish a respectful distance between the name and the s rather than simply writing the Smiths, the Fongs, the Calderóns.

Now, what if the name ends in s? Figuring out the plural of a name like Williams drives people crazy. Some would write the Williams, but that means the family’s name is William. Others employ that misguided apostrophe: the Williams’ or the Williams’s or even the William’s. That last one is particularly ghastly. Taken literally, the William’s means something ridiculous: “belonging to the William.” Forcing an apostrophe between the m and s mangles and mocks the name.

All names ending in s become plural by adding es. Make it the Williamses. To show possession, add just an apostrophe: Williamses’. The house belonging to the Williams family is the Williamses’ house. Maybe you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous and looks bizarre. But it’s also correct.

Let’s look at some other types of proper nouns …

• Many organizations, companies, and government agencies are known by two or more capital letters (AP, MGM, EEOC). Initialisms ending in S show possession by adding ’s: CBS’s ratings, DHHS’s policies.

• Add only an apostrophe to show possession for a place, business, or organization whose name is a plural noun or ends with a plural noun: the Everglades’ scenery, Beverly Hills’ weather; the Cellars’ wine list, General Mills’ cereals.

• Most writers and editors make an exception for biblical and classical proper names ending in s. Traditionally, only an apostrophe is added to such names: Moses’ law, Xerxes’ army. However, the influential Chicago Manual of Style recently ruled against this odd policy and started recommending Moses’s, Xerxes’s, etc.

For apostrophes with possessive proper nouns, remember these three guidelines: If the noun is singular, add ’s (Kansas’s). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the Magi’s gifts). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the Beatles’ greatest hits).

Except for writers who abide by Associated Press guidelines, apostrophe rules for possessive proper nouns are virtually identical to those for possessive common nouns.

 

Pop Quiz
Correct any wayward sentences.

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adam’s son.
2. Both Adams’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Season’s food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnson’s favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdez’s car is in the shop.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adams’s son. (some would write Adams’)
2. Both Adamses’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Seasons’ food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnsons’ favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdezes’ car is in the shop.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 4:56 pm


Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble

Newsflash: apostrophes are not optional. If they ever become so, the writer-reader relationship will be one step closer to dysfunctional. Still, many casual scribblers would rather not be bothered.

Apostrophes are a lot easier for those who slow down and do what it takes to get them right. For instance, to show possession with singular nouns that don’t end in s, all you have to do is add ’s (girl’s, farm’s, love’s). Most people can handle that. Admittedly, trouble arises with certain other kinds of nouns. We will deal with some of those problems in weeks to come.

Today we’ll examine singular nouns that end in s, with lens, cactus, and series as examples. Such words can become confusing when they are made plural, then made possessive.

To form the singular possessive form of a word like lens, just add ’s: the lens’s reflection. But how about more than one lens’s reflection? The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe. You can’t go wrong if you take this in two steps. First write the plural, lenses. Then add an apostrophe … and there you are: the lenses’ reflection.

It’s different with cactus, because the plural is cacti. The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun not ending in s, add ’s. So, depending on your meaning, you would write either the cactus’s spines for one cactus* or the cacti’s spines for two or more cacti.

Now consider series, which is the same word whether singular or plural. If a scientist has conducted a sequence of lab experiments, we would write about the series’s outcome. Because we mean one series, we add ’s, just as we would do with any singular noun.*

But what if the scientist then ran another cycle of tests and compared it to the first? Then we’d be reporting on the two series’ results. Because we mean more than one series, we add only an apostrophe to series, just as we would do with any plural noun ending in s.

*Note: Although we endorse an ’s for all possessive singular nouns ending in s, not everyone agrees. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe: the bus’ route, my boss’ orders.

Then there’s the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally backs the ’s but prescribes only an apostrophe when the word that follows begins with an s. This means that the Associated Press would recommend the cactus’s needles, but also the cactus’ spines because of the first s in spines.

Does that seem odd to you, too?

 

Pop Quiz

1. That specie’s/species’/species’s status was changed to endangered.

2. McDermott is the people’s/peoples’ choice.

3. Those company’s/companies’/companie’s profits are way up.

4. Her many dress’s/dress’/dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. That species’s status was changed to endangered. (but some would endorse species’)

2. McDermott is the people’s choice.

3. Those companies’ profits are way up.

4. Her many dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

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Posted on Sunday, May 4, 2014, at 9:59 pm


When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.

 

Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

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Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm


Media Watch 3

Let’s zero in once more on cringe-inducers culled from recent dailies and periodicals …

• Newspaper headline: “New look for a old test.”

One of the principles of English you would think we all learned in third grade is that the article a goes before consonants (a pen, a hat), and the article an goes before vowels and vowel sounds (an owl, an honor). But these days, items like that headline are rampant. Here’s a reporter writing of “a unusual twist in Senate process.” Here’s another, mentioning “an very unfortunately named document.” We’ve even heard the president of the United States say “a international effort.”

We can no longer dismiss such things as a slip of the tongue or a typo.

• Another rule we learned in grade school was, “Neither … nor, either  or, but never neither  or.” We thought everybody knew that one. But neither  or is gaining momentum among people who ought to know better, like the columnist who wrote: “In short, the technology, sports and political worlds seem to be saying that markets should neither be free or fair.”

Let’s change “or” to “nor,” and while we’re at it, put “be” before “neither” to make the sentence parallel: “ … saying that markets should be neither free nor fair.”

• A magazine reported that a twelve-year-old girl sold 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, calling it “an all-time record.” Delete “all-time.” All records are all-time records. Writers should also avoid new record—when a record is set, new is redundant.

• An article about a successful author offered this snarky advice: “Don’t publish anything ’til you’re fifty.” The writer of this profile should have written “till you’re fifty.” You won’t find a reference book anywhere that recommends ’til. In Words on Words, John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.” Some defend ’til as a contraction of until. However, till predates until by several centuries.

• Check out this sentence about an aggressive company: “The Comcast-run colossus may be able to dictate terms to individual cable channels and Hollywood studios who supply TV shows and movies.” Make it “that supply TV shows and movies.” Use who only when referring to humans. Businesses may be run by humans, but grammatically they are things. Avoid usages like a company who. Use that or which instead.

At least as far as grammar is concerned, there is no debate: corporations are not people.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.

1. “It was committed by two identical twin sisters.”

2. “What lengths did you go through in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for we Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there too.”

5. “It was different from the bill that they had wrote.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “It was committed by identical twin sisters.” (two twins is redundant)

2. “What lengths did you go to in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for us Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there.” (“also … too” is redundant)

5. “It was different from the bill that they had written.”

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Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, at 1:59 pm