Author Topic: Avoiding awful misuses of the English possessive  (Read 15011 times)

Joe Carillo

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Avoiding awful misuses of the English possessive
« on: October 29, 2020, 07:12:42 AM »
Almost five years ago, I almost fell off my chair when I came across this otherworldly headline of a CNN.com news story: “Pregnant pastor’s wife shot, killed in home invasion in Indianapolis.” My mind saw the ghastly image of a pregnant church minister grieving over the body of his slain wife, but then it struck me as highly improbable that the pastor—he should be male according to church tradition—was the one heavy with child.

Neither gender role inversion nor violation of the natural order of things was involved in that tragic incident, however. It was in fact the pastor’s slain wife who was pregnant, but the headline writer had messed up his grammar in applying the possessive apostrophe-“s.” That headline should have been written as “Pastor’s pregnant wife shot, killed in home invasion in Indianapolis,” to reflect the correct sense of  that news story’s lead sentence—a pregnant wife of an Indianapolis pastor was shot and killed.

                                   IMAGE CREDIT: WOODWARDENGLISH.COM


That appalling error in attribution prompted me to do a quick review of the English possessive, and I’m sharing it again today so everyone can deal better with this admittedly tricky grammar form.

Recall that the general rule in forming the possessive is simply (a) to add an “apostrophe-s” to a singular noun that doesn’t end in the letter “s,” as in “Rolando’s achievement,” and (b) to just add an apostrophe if the noun is in the plural form or already ends in “s.” Two examples: “the girls’ obsession” and “Maritess’ loveliness.”

There are some grammarians though who recommend that the apostrophe-“s” still be routinely added even to singular nouns that end in “s,” so that “Charles’ project” becomes “Charles’s project,” and “Maritess’ loveliness” becomes “Maritess’s loveliness.” It’s a valid option, of course, but see how messy the possessive looks with a triple “s” ending as in “Maritess’s,” so I personally avoid it.

To form the possessive when the noun doesn’t end in “s” but is plural in sense, like the irregular plurals “women,” “children,” “media,” “oxen,” and “bacteria,” simply append “apostrophe-s” to the noun as if it were singular, as in “Awareness of women’s rights is growing in many parts of the world.” When there’s joint possession by two nouns, always remember to let the possessive nearest the noun possessed carry the possessive, as in “Romeo and Juliet’s passion for each other sealed their tragic fate.”

It’s best to always avoid using apostrophe-“s” possessives for inanimate objects, particularly in relation to their component parts. Although not grammatically wrong, it gives the feeling that something about the language is being violated in possessive constructions like these: “the table’s top,” “the lamp’s bulb,” “the car’s tires,” and “the window’s panes.” Knock off the apostrophe-“s” in such possessives altogether: “the table top,” “the lamp bulb,” “the car tires,” and “the window panes.”

But to get back to that ghastly CNN.com headline, what happens when both the entity that takes the possessive apostrophe-“s” form and the entity possessed are noun phrases? Take as example the subject of this statement: “The dismal performance last year of the transport planning officer has been severely criticized.”

That subject can be rendered in the concise possessive form “the transport planning officer’s dismal performance last year”; here, the noun phrase “the transport planning officer’s” is the possessor and the noun phrase “dismal performance last year” the possessed entity. In doing so, however, take care not to disturb or transpose the modifiers of the noun phrases. It invites grammar disaster, for instance, to render that noun phrase possessive as “the dismal transport planning officer’s performance last year.”

They may sometimes be just copyediting errors, but that doesn’t obviate the outrage on the reader’s sensibilities by awful possessives like that of CNN.com’s headline about the slain pregnant pastor’s wife.

(Next: Should adjective clauses always be reduced to adjective phrases?) November 5, 2020    

This essay, 2,017th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the October 29, 2020 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2020 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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« Last Edit: November 20, 2020, 09:30:24 AM by Joe Carillo »