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I love fortuitous coincidences. I’d been fretting all week because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Or rather, that I’d thought of around 15 things to write, and all of them turned out to be mind-meltingly dull when I wrote them. (And if there’s one thing we can’t let grammar become, it’s dull.) But then, thankfully, a comment came that I was compelled to answer. Regarding the previous post, about how Philadelphia Flyers fans use exclamation points where a Penguins fan would use a question mark, commenter Duncan asked:

Shouldn’t that be “Flyers’ fans” and “Penguins’ fan”?

My answer is no. But to the related question “Couldn’t that be…”, the answer is yes.  Let’s start by looking at the apostrophized version. Penguins’ fan is a noun phrase, with the possessive Penguins’ serving as a determiner. “Determiner” is basically a more general term for “article”, which is what they teach you in school that the and a(n) are. Determiners include articles, demonstratives (this, that, these, those), and possessives (my, your, Leon Czolgosz’s), among others. The general rule with determiners is the opposite of the Lay’s Potato Chips Rule: you can’t have more than one.

(1a) *I broke the her glass menagerie.
(1b) *I read the Grant’s paper.

Yet I have no problems with saying

(2a) I saw a Flyers fan engage in morally reprehensible actions.
(2b) Those Penguins fans just solved world hunger!

So it appears that Flyers and Penguins aren’t functioning as determiners in these situations. Instead, they’re the first half of the compound nouns Flyers/Penguins fan.  Each of these consists of two nouns that have been grouped together. In this respect, a Flyers fan is like a tennis shoe. Compound nouns are common in English for referring to something that is related to someone, but not possessed by them; there’re Gibson girls, the Marlboro Man, Bush backers, Obama supporters, and so on. Furthermore, this is the standard form of these phrases; “Marlboro’s Man” has 172 Google hits, compared to more than 900,000 for “Marlboro Man”; “Bush’s backers” has 3,600 to the 30,000 for “Bush backers”; and so on. So too with sports fans; 8 of the first 10 Google hits for “penguins fans” are without the apostrophe.

Further evidence of this is supplied by the acceptability of the phrase Penguin fan, which is well-attested (albeit more rarely than Penguins fan), and sounds perfectly normal to me. There, all the ambiguity disappears; it’s definitely a compound noun, not a possessed one.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use the apostrophe. Penguins’ fans can also be used as a whole noun phrase that gets its own determiner. This puts two determiners in a row, but that’s acceptable in some situations:

(3a) To reach the The Simpsons Ride, visitors walk through the mouth of an 8-foot-tall, 36-foot-wide Krusty head. [link]
(3b) But I wanted the Marie Callender’s pie. [link]

Basically, you can use two determiners if the second one has a really close association with the head noun. Then the determiner and head noun form a noun unto themselves (rather like a compound noun).  And I think you could argue that Penguins’ and fan have such an association pretty easily. In summary, both with and without an apostrophe are okay, but it seems without the apostrophe is preferred. Well, I prefer it, at least.

So where’s the fortuitous coincidence in all this? Because it dovetails nicely into a comment I’d wanted to make about another post. Anyone who read the Wall Street Journal Blog Watch article is familiar with GrammarBlog. They’re the good kind of prescriptivists, the kind that are complaining, by and large, about really egregious errors — ones that stand in the way of understanding what people are saying. For instance, one of the recent posts is about a sign at a fish ‘n chips shop declaring the special to be “Fish few, chips few, peas”. I still am not certain what this means, although I assume it’s that the special is fish with a few chips and peas. But with those commas where there are, it’s maddeningly unclear.

The reason that I bring up GrammarBlog is that I’ve been meaning to point out a post of theirs that is just great, and is all about this same issue: which is the best choice for National Singles/Single’s/Singles’ Day? This was one of those posts where I realized in the course of reading it that it was exactly what I thought, for exactly the same reasons, only I hadn’t realized it until then.

Summary: Penguins fans is a compound noun, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe. That doesn’t mean it can’t take an apostrophe, but it does seem to be dispreferred.

Prescriptivists are sometimes like kids. The thing about kids is that they’ll sometimes come up with a really clever argument for why something is the way it is, but they won’t think about its consequences. A kid might, for instance, claim that milk must be good for you because very fit people advertise for it. But then they won’t think of all the other things that are advertised by very fit people but that are unquestionably bad for you (e.g., fast food, pop, beer). Prescriptivists will often do the same thing: they’ll come up with a seemingly reasonable argument to back up the position they hold, but for the argument to be valid, you’d have to ignore some obvious counter-examples.

On that point, let’s look at the issue of gerundive subjects (which sounds much more exotic than it is). Remember that a gerund is a present participle of a verb (the -ing form) that is being treated like a noun:

(1) Swimming is one of my favorite activities
(2) I enjoy eating cakes

The issue of gerundive subjects comes up in a sentence like (3), where the question becomes whether me or my is the better choice:

(3) My roommates are rather concerned about me/my dancing

The representative I’ve chosen for the prescriptivist opinion on this is Patricia O’Conner, from her book Woe is I. (Other prescriptivists, such as James Kilpatrick, agree with her opinion, but she’s the one who’s at least given some justification for her stance.) O’Conner describes gerundive subjects as the “Gordian knot of possessive puzzles”, by which I figured she meant that the solution is to cut the sentences in half with a sword. But no! That’s not at all what she was getting at. O’Conner has a nice neat and tidy solution to this issue — not unlike Alexander the Great’s solution to the original Gordian knot. And, like Alexander’s solution, O’Conner’s solution ignores the essential subtleties of the problem.

O’Conner’s solution is to say that my (the genitive form) is always right, and me (the accusative form) is always wrong. She claims that while a gerund has certain trappings of a verb, it is actually a noun. This is based on the distributional properties: a gerund in a position like this can be easily replaced by things that are unambiguously nouns:

(4) My roommates are rather concerned about *me/my dance.

If the gerund is a noun, then it must take a genitive possessor, because that’s how nouns work. You can’t say me dance, so you can’t say me dancing. As I mentioned earlier, O’Conner’s not the only one to hold this opinion. James Kilpatrick, in his laundry list of complaints, agrees that gerunds are “nouns in drag” and thus require a genitive subject.

Boy, this would be a great, simple solution to a knotty problem, if only it ended up working. But of course it doesn’t, or else I wouldn’t be taking such a smug, self-satisfied tone in this post. So let’s look at the evidence that gerunds aren’t just plain nouns:

(5) My roommates are rather concerned about me dancing spastically.

Huh? What the devil is spastically doing there? That’s an adverb, it’s modifying dancing, and everyone knows that adverbs can’t modify nouns! You can’t replace dancing with dance in this sentence. (You might note that this sentence could be re-written with my spastic dancing, where dancing does behave like a noun, but all we’re trying to show here is that the gerund sometimes conducts itself in a manner unbecoming a noun.)

(6a) I enjoy eating/consumption.
(6b) I enjoy eating/*consumption cakes.

(6b) is another example where a noun can’t replace a gerund, even though it could in (6a). The problem here is that the verbiness of the gerund means it can take arguments (i.e., the direct object cakes), which a noun definitely can’t. Okay, so maybe it’s not that we users of English have been duped into thinking gerunds are verbs – maybe they really are verbs (or at least they have some characteristics of a verb). That’s one of the central points in Rob Malouf‘s thesis/book (which I think I mentioned earlier): gerunds aren’t verbs or nouns, they’re both. Malouf describes gerunds as mixed-category items, items that simultaneously display verbal and nominal properties, as in (7):

(7) His repeatedly visiting Mike angered me

The gerund here is modified by an adverb (one point in the verb column) and has a direct object (another point for verbdom), but is the subject of the sentence (one point in the noun column). So it’s painting with an overly broad brush to claim that the gerund is just a noun and that one must therefore use the genitive form (my dancing). And in fact there’s a number of situations where you oughtn’t to use the genitive form, such as:

(8) #My roommates are rather concerned about my dancing at their party tomorrow

Something about this sentence just seems wrong. Using my dancing seems to imply that the act of dancing has already occurred, since you’re referring to it as a noun, but the act has not yet happened, so that’s bad. Using me dancing instead makes it okay if this act of dancing has not yet occurred.

Okay, let’s review. Gerunds aren’t just nouns, they’re a mix of verbal and nominal properties; you can’t always replace a gerund with a non-gerundive noun; and sometimes you can’t use a genitive subject for a gerund. It looks like the prescriptivist position that only possessive subjects are allowed is a vast oversimplification of the state of the world.

Now we’re back at square one, with seemingly no insight about which form is correct, accusative [as in (5)] or genitive [as in (7)]. Except we have gotten one insight out of this – and it’s a big one. The answer is that both should be considered correct in most cases. To me, and I think to most people I’ve run this by, the difference in the two forms is that the genitive form (9a) seems to address the singing as a thing, while the accusative form (9b) addresses it as an event and focuses more on the person doing the singing. In most situations, this is a minor difference, so it’s okay to use either form. In some situations, like those in (8) or (9b), one form is a bit better than the other (at least to me), but these are surprisingly few and far between.

(9a) I object to his singing; he’s horribly off-key!
(9b) I object to him singing; this is my concert!

So my solution is as follows: use the genitive version (his singing) when you want to focus on what’s being done, and the accusative version (him singing) when you want to focus on the person doing it. If the focus doesn’t matter to you, then just pick whichever sounds better to you. If anyone objects, teach ’em a little bit about mixed categories for me.

[Full disclosure: in O’Conner’s defense, her prescription (always use the genitive) is followed by a sidebar in which she says “another complication is the kind of sentence that can go either way” (i.e., where the accusative form is also okay).  However, she doesn’t specify how to tell these sentences apart from the earlier sentences, which people think can go either way, but can’t (in O’Conner’s opinion).  So that’s not a terribly useful hedge.]

I’m not the sort of person who expects people to always listen to what I have to say. But here I go admonishing that Omit Needless Words is not a rule of grammar, and I’m immediately reminded of why I had to do so. Let’s look at an example of misusing Omit Needless Words in support of a proposed grammar rule; in fact let’s go a step further and look at an example of misinterpreting ONW in support of said rule: James Kilpatrick’s newest column. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about the double genitive, the common construction used in sentences like

(1) He is a friend of Celine Dion’s.
(2) I’m familiar with that enticing look of his.

Now, as Language Log has pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with those sentences — the double genitive was a favorite of Shakespeare’s, among others. But here’s what’s weird about Kilpatrick’s argument: he claims that the double genitive is wasteful. For Kilpatrick, the friend of… part of the phrase establishes possession, and thus the ‘s possessive is redundant. As Kilpatrick puts it, “Words are precious! Waste them not!”, which is an instantiation of the Omit Needless Words idea. (It looks to me that Kilpatrick has made a mantra of Omitting Needless Words; he wastes none on segues between the various peeves he catalogs in his column.)

Now, it’s bad enough that Kilpatrick has gone astray by claiming that Omit Needless Words justifies his grammar rule, but to add salt to the wound, he’s gone further astray by confusing what qualifies as a word. Properly, ‘s is a clitic (a syntactically independent but phonologically dependent lexical item — something you can’t say unless it’s attached to another word), not a true word. Strunk never said anything about Omitting Needless Clitics. If you’re going to buttress your opinion by exhorting people not to waste something, make sure you’re exhorting them not to waste the right thing. And seriously, who on earth sits about fretting over wasting clitics? It’s not as though the clitic mines are running short, or we’ve passed “peak clitic”.

Anyway, as I mentioned before, the Omit Needless Words/Word-Like Elements argument won’t pass muster here, because the double genitive really is a grammatical construction in English. Just try to rephrase sentence (2) so as to not use the double genitive, without changing the meaning of the sentence. What can you say? Certainly not that enticing look of him, nor that enticing look of he. You could try his enticing look, but it loses the specificity of the look that that enticing look affords. So not only is the double genitive not bad, it’s also good. Further supporting this, consider sentence (3a) and some possible restatements (each accompanied by delightful symbols):

(3a) This complaint of Kilpatrick’s is unfounded
(3b) *?This complaint of Kilpatrick is unfounded
(3c) #Kilpatrick’s complaint is unfounded
(3d) ?This one of Kilpatrick’s complaints is unfounded

(3a) sounds right to me, but (3b) sounds nearly ungrammatical. (3c) is perfectly grammatical, but isn’t the right thing to say if Kilpatrick has more than one complaint and we need to distinguish that this particular is unfounded. (I’m positive he’s had some well-founded arguments in his life.) And (3d) sounds a bit off to me, though not too bad. But, if we were going to rule out (3a) by Omitting Needless Words, then we’d really have to rule out (3d) a little harder because it’s got one more word (and one more suffix) than (3a) had. So here it looks like the double genitive is the best option.

Summary: Please, don’t get overzealous in applying Omit Needless Words. Strunk made no suggestion to Omit Needless Clitics. If you’re going to complain about niggling points of grammar, please use the right terminology.  Also, the double genitive is not ungrammatical.

To hear most people tell it, writing something like I like you’re coat is pretty similar to writing Say what you will about the Fascists, but at least Mussolini got the trains running on time. Namely, it marks you as an idiot with only a rudimentary understanding of the English language (or Italian history in the second sentence). “There are very simple, clear-cut rules about which your/you’re is used where!” cry the grammarians, and I admit that in the past I have cried with them. But if writing the Preposterous Apostrophes series has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is clear-cut when apostrophes are involved. So why do people get so confused between possessive pronouns and contractions (or in the case of they’re/their/there, pronouns, contractions, and locatives)?

I think the problem is best seen in the its/it’s distinction. The former is a possessive pronoun, the latter a contraction. People get awfully riled up about this confusion, but just try to tell me it’s not a reasonable mistake to make. It is singular, it ends in a consonant that sounds nothing like an s, and it’s sure noun-like. Well, nouns that don’t end in s-like sounds always get ‘s to make their possessives, so why shouldn’t it be it’s? The answer is that, due to the vagaries of English, pronouns are not treated like nouns when possessives are formed, silly! Of course, there are situations where it’s would be a proper possessive, because this is English and nothing should be easy about it:

(1) Get Over It‘s lack of commercial success despite Sisqo’s starring role remains a mystery.
(2) The IT’S-IT‘s popularity is limited off the West Coast, but it shouldn’t be.
(3) Cousin Itt‘s hair is the inspiration for my new hairstyle.

Now, in both of these cases, it is a noun, while in its situations, it is a pronoun. One could argue that in these sentences the ‘s is not attaching directly to it (or Itt), but rather to a phrase that ends in it. But I think that in cases where one can refer directly to it as a noun, it’s is far better than its:

(4) Upon seeing the ghost, Mr. Czolgosz shouted, “It… it… it… it’s a ghost!” It‘s repetition in his stammered statement underscored his fear.

(Of course, any reasonable speaker of English not trying to make a middling point about the occasional acceptability of it’s would have said “the repetition of it” in (4).) Anyway, my point is that it is only because it is a pronoun that it’s is not the standard form for the possessive of it. So why does being a pronoun matter? I don’t actually know exactly, but here’s my speculation:

English does not have a particularly extensive case system; a given word is usually written & pronounced the same whether it is the subject or object of a verb (Paolo ate the book vs. the book ate Paolo). In a lot of other languages, such as Estonian, Russian, and German, just to focus on Central and Eastern Europe, noun phrases are written differently depending on what role they perform in the sentence:

(5) Der Tisch gab den Tisch des Tisch(e)s dem Tisch(e)
The table gave the table of the table to the table.

(I cannot guarantee this example is perfect German, as I copied it verbatim from Wikipedia.) In (5), the subject has nominative case and so its article is der, whereas the second table is the direct object and gets accusative case. The other two tables have genitive case (possessive case, as with English ‘s) and dative case (a to-phrase in English), respectively. English does have a little bit of case marking, but it only appears on pronouns (I ate the book vs. The book ate me), and even then it doesn’t appear on all pronouns (It ate you vs. You ate it).

What’s my point with this digression in Germanic morphology? Simple: Possessives are manifestations of genitive case, and pronouns in English manifest case differently from nouns. So it’s not all that surprising that pronouns have different possessive forms than they would if they were nouns. But given that it is the same in nominative and accusative cases, just like a noun, it is a little surprising that it‘s possessive is a special case, especially since its and it’s sound identical. So yes, there is a clear-cut rule that the possessive of the pronoun it is its, but that’s competing with a separate rule saying that ‘s is the possessive marker.

Same thing with your/you’re and their/they’re; if you think of the rule that possessives involve an apostrophe (for there is no possessive of a noun that does not include an apostrophe) before you think of the special rule that pronouns’ possessives do not involve apostrophes, you could easily write you’re or they’re for the possessives. I’m not saying it’s justified, per se. But it is a reasonable error — certainly more reasonable than one would expect given the invective spewed at those who make this mistake.

And, for the history buffs in the audience, let me point out that its is a somewhat recent addition to the language. Its earliest written citation in the OED is 1598, although it was apparently in use colloquially before then. In fact, through the 19th century, it’s and its were in competition to be the possessive form of it, and it looks like it’s was more popular in the 17th century. So it isn’t obvious that its should be the possessive pronoun, or at least it wasn’t at first.


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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