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Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.

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You know that I think too many people try to catch other people on grammar mistakes and typos. It’s alright (but often rudely done) when the correcter is right. It’s irritating when the correcter is neither right nor wrong (as with omitting or including Oxford commas). And then there’s the hypercorrection, where the correcter really wants to prove their superiority, and just starts making corrections willy-nilly, often miscorrecting perfectly acceptable writing. Here’s a fun example, posted as either a “job LOL” or a “work fail” on Failblog:

garbage

OH BOOM! Hey, person who just wanted to keep a common area clean! You and your reasonable request just got served! Scorched Earth LOL!

Except: I count five corrections, of which two are invalid, one is a question of tone, and only two are actually valid complaints. Oh, and there’s a missed correction.

Correction 1: whoever to whomever. See, this is why whom is leaving English. Very few people, even those who want to see it stay in the language, know how to use it correctly (i.e., as the accusative case form of who, not as the formal version of who). Briefly, whom(ever) is used when the noun phrase it’s replacing would be an object of a verb. The wh-word in whoever ate this pizza is replacing a subject NP, which means that it should get nominative case (whoever), not accusative case (whomever). If the clause were “whoever this pizza ate”, then one could add the m. But it is not, and the correction is wrong.

Correction 2: Removing the comma before and. Because this and is joining two verb phrases into a single verb phrase with a single subject, there’s no syntactic reason to have this comma. The comma is also inappropriate from a rhetorical standpoint; a speaker wouldn’t pause before this and. Score 1 for the correcter.

Correction 3: Replacing the comma with a semicolon before you are gross. No, semicolons generally join two complete sentences into a single sentence, and whoever … here isn’t complete.* A comma is indeed correct here; this is an example of left-dislocation, rare in written English but common in spoken English and many other languages**. In left-dislocation, a noun phrase describing the subject or object of the sentence is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic of the sentence, and then is referred to later by a pronoun.

Because the specific pronoun here is you, this could also be a case of the whoever phrase being a vocative phrase appended at the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is common in spoken English and shows up often in online comments: e.g., “John, you need to grow up.” If it’s viewed as a vocative, then a comma is again correct. A colon could also be appropriate, as a greeting for the entire message, like the opening to a business letter. Either way, a semicolon is incorrect, and so is the corrector.

Correction 4: Parenthesizing profanity. The corrector claims that there’s no need for profanity. This is an issue of style, and isn’t really right or wrong. In a business setting, like the one this pizza box was apparently found in, written profanity may be inappropriate. However, having been in college recently enough to remember roommates who left empty pizza boxes scattered like lamps around a living room, I would argue that profanity is merited in these cases.

Correction 5: it’s replacing its. That’s a good change. The added rationale, though, should have a colon in place of its comma: need an apostrophe: ITS = possessive.

Missed Correction: the space in who ever. Whoever ought to be a single word here, because it’s the indefinite/generalized form of who, which is standardly written as a single word any more. Who ever would be appropriate if ever were an adverb modifying the verb (e.g., Who ever heard of a snozzberry?). When the correcter added the M, they retained the space, and that’s a missed opportunity to correct.

All in all, this is a microcosm of why I hate people correcting people’s grammar. The correctors are often wrong themselves, and in the course of trying to show up someone else, they completely miss the point — in this case, the undeniable fact that abandoned pizza boxes belong in the trash. Correctors: You’re not helping. And if you’re not helping, you could at least have the decency to be right.

*: It could be complete as a question, but here it’s obviously supposed to be a declarative sentence.

**: I first became aware of left-dislocation in French sentences like Mon ami, il est comme un sandwich, and there’s a whole class of languages that regularly do this.

I had so much fun doing a Christmas-themed post last week that I found myself compelled to follow it up with another holiday-themed post. This time it’s Nochevieja y el Día de Año Nuevo, or as people who aren’t still giddy from managing to pass the first quarter of undergraduate Spanish might call them, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.* The obvious question, as with so many holidays, is whether there’s an apostrophe, and if so where it goes. New Year’s is pretty easy; unlike other holidays, there’s only one new year revelant on that day, so neither New Years Day nor New Years’ Day work, because they suggest more than one new year is starting. (This issue of multiple new years was the subject of a brilliant satirical post last year.) The correct version being New Year’s Day is confirmed in Title 5, Section 6103 of the U.S. Code, and the Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1971 in the U.K.

So maybe New Year’s Day is a bit boring. Where the real fun comes is when you try to pluralize New Year’s Day. Suddenly you have multiple new years, so New Years Days and New Years’ Days become reasonable possibilities again. Since all three are fairly reasonable, the matter would seem to be one of personal taste. If you’re the sort of person who likes to pluralize early in the construction of complex noun phrases, the sort to say things like passers-by or Attorneys General, then go ahead as pluralize the year before possessivizing, netting New Years’ Days. You’ll be in the company of G. E. Sargent and the Charles-Dickens-edited weekly Household Words. If you’re the sort to treat set phrases as a single word, preferring passer-bys and Attorney Generals, leave it as New Year’s Days. It’s been seen in the weeklies Every Saturday (1873) and the Charles-Dickens-Jr.-edited All the Year Round (1894). If you’re indecisive, omit the apostrophe to avoid having to go one way or the other. That’s done by David Jennings (1730) and others, but this approach seems much rarer than either of the apostrophized versions.

Which version’s “right”, though? I think you all know me well enough to know that I’ll defer on that point.


*: It’s sort of sad that I consider this a substantial accomplishment, what with being in my fourth year in a linguistics doctoral program, and given the fact that a moderately intelligent four-year-old could do the same thing if raised in a Spanish-speaking home.

It seems that there is a group of mistaken prescriptivists who insist that you cannot use the ‘s possessive with inanimate objects. One argues that the ‘s possessive grants human qualities to the inanimate object that it surely does not deserve. This may sound familiar; I discussed a similar (if reversed) argument a few months ago that using that in a relative clause that refers to a person is somehow de-humanizing and surely at least highly indecorous, if not outright illiterate. Others just state as fact that inanimates and ‘s possessives are a Jet and a Shark; never the twain should meet. At first blush, the rule might seem reasonable:

(1a) I had the time of my life last weekend!
(1b) *I had my life’s time last weekend!

(2a) I spent the weekend painting the side of the house magenta!
(2b) *My wife has just informed me that I’m spending next weekend re-painting the house’s side white.

But I’m going to argue that the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b) is epiphenomenal. First, note that (1a)’s time of my life is an idiom. It’s rare that you can change the form of an idiom and retain its idiomatic meaning. For instance:

(3) *That new record album is the meow of the cat!

That’s nonsense, unless the album literally contained caterwauling. But if you switch in the cat’s meow, suddenly it’s comprehensible — if a bit dated. So (1b) doesn’t sound bad because it’s got an inanimate with ‘s; it sounds bad because you’ve botched the idiom. As for (2b), I agree it is bad, and it’s bad because it is an inanimate object possessing an inalienable part. But even that’s not always a problem. The extreme southwestern tip of Great Britain is called “Land’s End“, so-named at least back to 1769; the phrase itself has been used generally since at least 1400, according to the OED. Similarly, there’s a hotel called The Cliff’s Edge in Hawaii.

In general, aside from idiomatic avoidance and a few special situations, this rule is rubbish. The Gregg Reference Manual wants you to think that there is something wrong with saying the terminal’s lower level, or its edge, or leaf’s color but I can’t see it:

(4a) […] you see it’s just people trying to survive,” he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal’s lower level […]
(4b) […] bring the hoe in a direction perpendicularly to its edge […] (from 1787, by the way)
(4c) Three substances contribute to a leaf’s color

Summary: In the case of inanimate possessors using ‘s, there’s historical usage of such phrases, there’re modern attestations, there’re idioms with it. There simply isn’t any evidence that there is or ever was a rule of English saying that inanimate objects cannot take an ‘s possessive.

***

The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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