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Am I Possessive?

February 10, 2018 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 11, 2018

Writer’s group? Writers’ group? Writers group?

Ever struggle over the inclusion of an apostrophe when two nouns appear next to one another? Maybe you’ve written something like writing group to save yourself the hassle of figuring out which option is correct.

It’s likely that at some point we’ve all asked whether or not an apostrophe was appropriate for the first noun when two nouns are paired. And the uncertainty is often greatest when the first word is a plural ending in S.

We know that we add an apostrophe to show possession or ownership with nouns: John’s dog, the school’s mascot, her parents’ mistakes. But if a word isn’t possessive, does it sometimes get an apostrophe anyway?

Short answer: Yes. The genitive case uses apostrophes to show relationships or associations between words. Showing possession or ownership is just one use of the genitive.

So are there times when an apostrophe isn’t needed for paired nouns?

Short answer: Yes. When the first noun is operating as an adjective.

 

Attributive vs. Possessive Nouns

The choice between apostrophe and no apostrophe would be easy if the possessive was actually always truly possessive. But what we commonly call the possessive is actually the genitive case. The genitive helps us show possession, yet that’s not all it does. The genitive is also used to reflect measurement (including time)—five days’ worth of dirty laundry, a day’s driveone dollar’s worth of penny candy, a month’s salary. We also use the genitive to show not possession or ownership but source.

Consider this sentence: We all marveled over Natalie’s painting.

Natalie’s painting could be owned by her, it could have been painted by her, or it could be a painting of her. If the painting was created by Natalie, the word Natalie’s shows source.

If Natalie is the subject matter of the painting, for clarity we might write something such as we marveled over Marco’s painting of Natalie. But we could and do say Natalie’s painting, and given the context, others would understand what was meant.

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You might have heard the dilemma between the choice of an apostrophe and no apostrophe framed as attributive vs. possessive.

When an adjective comes before a noun, we call it an attributive adjective. So when you’re trying to decide about an apostrophe for the first noun in a multinoun pair, you need to know whether the first noun is being used in one of the genitive senses, often as a possessive, or as an attributive adjective.

We’ve already looked at a few possessive noun pairs (John’s dog, school’s mascot, parents’ mistakes). Let’s look now at some attributive adjectives. In this grouping, the adjectives in the first three sentences are simply adjectives placed before nouns; in the final three sentences, nouns are used as adjectives. I included both so that you can see that nouns being used as attributive adjectives function like other adjectives.

The blue moon was bright.

An old wagon had been abandoned in the yard.

Thomas played with the misshapen kumquat

He claimed that a dog owner was different from a cat owner.

Our employee advocate was the owner’s son.

She told me I had chicken legs.

In the final three examples, we can clearly see that there’s no need for an apostrophe for the first noun in any of the pairs. The first noun is being used as an adjective in the same manner that the adjectives in the first three examples are used as adjectives.

However, we can modify the sentences and create the need for the possessive and thus the need for an apostrophe as well.

That dog’s owner is also a cat lover.

The employees‘ advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.

The chicken’s legs were uneven.

But what if the choice isn’t so clear cut? In some cases, we might want to consider what we know about adjectives.

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Are you familiar with the royal order of adjectives? Adjectives come in different categories, and the categories usually fall in a particular order when multiple adjectives modify a noun.

The mouse.

The pink mouse.

The pretty pink mouse.

Pink pretty the mouse. X

Adjectives in one of the categories are called qualifiers. They are usually nouns (sometimes gerunds), and they sit right next to the noun being modified. These qualifiers are nouns functioning as attributive adjectives. A few examples—

wedding dress

staff meeting

evening gown

town council

What’s important to remember about qualifiers is that in the order of adjectives, they are the final adjective out of a group of adjectives, the one closest to the noun they modify. The qualifier and the noun it modifies are a pair that can’t be separated, not if we intend to keep the same meaning; we don’t put other adjectives between the qualifier and the noun. Think of the pair as a compound or a unit. So we can say the blue wedding dress, but we can’t say the wedding blue dress. We can say the crooked town council but not the town crooked council.

When we’re talking possessives, however, we can insert an adjective between the noun pairs.

That dog’s irate owner is also a cat lover.

The employees’ worthless advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.

The chicken’s skinny legs were uneven.

Three of the sentences in the next example don’t work because I’ve inserted an adjective between the qualifier and the noun it’s modifying. The new adjectives can go before the noun pair, but they can’t go between.

He said that a dog irate owner was different from a cat owner. X

He said that an irate dog owner . . .

Our employee worthless advocate was the owner’s son. X

Our worthless employee advocate . . .

She told me I had chicken skinny legs. X

She told me I had skinny chicken legs.

So if you’re having trouble deciding about an apostrophe for a pair of nouns, temporarily add an adjective between them. If the new phrase doesn’t make sense, you’ve got an attributive adjective that must fall immediately before the noun it modifies. Put other adjectives before the noun pair if you want to, but don’t put any between the two nouns.

The wedding ice-blue dress cost more than my car. X

The wedding exquisite dress cost more than my car. X

The exquisite ice-blue silk wedding dress cost more than my car.

If the attributive isn’t right for your needs or doesn’t fit, add an apostrophe to the first noun and put as many other modifiers between the nouns as you like.

The wedding’s cost led to her parents’ divorce.

The wedding’s exorbitant and bank-breaking cost led to her parents’ divorce.

Depending on what you’re trying to convey, you might need the attributive or you might need the possessive. By adding other modifiers between the nouns, you can determine which option is called for. (You don’t need to use additional modifiers in your actual sentences to make this work. Adding them temporarily is simply a test to help you determine possessive or attributive.)

Both of the sentences in the next example are valid, although they don’t say the same thing. One uses council as an attributive adjective while the other uses council as a possessive. The first sentence would be more accurate in some circumstances while the second would better fit other situations.

The next council meeting will be on Monday.

The council’s next meeting will be on Monday.

Nouns Ending in S

Many attributive nouns will be singular, so you may not have trouble deciding between apostrophe and no apostrophe in most cases. Yet even though you’ll likely have fewer opportunities to use a plural as the first noun, there are some plurals that will be attributive. So what about nouns that end in S, specifically plurals? How do those work? Are they attributive or possessive? Apostrophe or no apostrophe?

With a few exceptions, they work the same way singular nouns work. Consider the following examples. I’ve included examples of singular nouns for comparison. (P=possessive, A=attributive)

The Giants’ pitcher was late to the game. (P)

The team’s pitcher was late to the game. (P)

The Giants’ new pitcher was late to the game. (P)

The team’s new pitcher was late to the game. (P)

Giants pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)

Team pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)

Giants new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X

Team new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X

Consider the name of a band that ends in S, whether singular or plural.

Kansas’s songs are all the rage today. (P)

Foo Fighters’ songs are all the rage today. (P)

Queen’s songs are all the rage today. (P)

Kansas’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)

Foo Fighters’ old songs are all the rage today. (P)

Queen’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)

Old Kansas songs are all the rage today. (A)

Old Foo Fighters songs are all the rage today. (A)

Old Queen songs are all the rage today. (A)

Kansas old songs are all the rage these days. X

Foo Fighters old songs are all the rage today. X

Queen old songs are all the rage these days. X

A few more—

Queen’s lead singer died way too young. (P)

Foo Fighters’ lead singer owns a Tesla. (P)

Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was 45 when he died. (A)

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl owns a Tesla. (A)

The Beatles’ earliest songs aren’t all universally loved. (P)

I love every Beatles song. (A)

If you have trouble deciding between attributive and possessive when the first noun of the noun pair is a plural or ends in an S, substitute a singular noun to see how it would be written.

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According to the Associated Press Stylebook, we don’t use an apostrophe when that first word ends in an S if it’s a descriptive phrase. As a tip, the AP Stylebook says that if a longer form of the phrase uses for or by rather than of, an apostrophe usually wouldn’t be needed in the shorter version.

an association for lawyers

a lawyers association

But if for, by, and of aren’t helpful, definitely temporarily insert adjectives between the two nouns as a test.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a bit of a different take. Other than for proper names (including names of companies), they advocate for using the apostrophe unless the intention is clearly not possessive. I suggest reversing that and checking first to see if the noun is being used in the attributive sense.

CMoS would have us write farmers’ market; I would argue for farmers market. Just as I would argue for writers conference, nurses station, and ladies room. I can’t see any reason to change the pattern simply because the first noun is plural rather than singular.

As we have seen, company names, band names, and the names of ball teams can be used as both attributive and possessive, even when they end in S. The same is true of members of professions or associations of people. I’ve included adjectives before the noun pairs in the next examples so you can easily see how these pairs would be attributive.

a [new] physicians center

the [very dry] plumbers putty

the [oldest] lawyers association

the [annual] writers conference

an [all-male] alumni association

the [largest] bricklayers union

a [comprehensive] voters guide

a [violent] believers uprising

[an active] consumers lobby

the [outspoken] soft drinks industry

Just because a word can be used as an attributive noun doesn’t mean that it should always or should only be used that way. And just because a plural can be used as an attributive, that doesn’t mean that it—or the singular version of the same word—can’t be used as a possessive. I’ve included these examples so you can see some options and instances when a plural noun can be used in the attributive sense. I don’t mean to imply that the same words can’t also be used in the possessive sense or can’t be singular and attributive as well.

The consumers’ newest lobby focuses on vitamins.

An updated voter guide is in the mail.

Unusual Plurals

Some irregular plurals that don’t end in S get an apostrophe S whether attributive or possessive.

the children’s new toys, the oldest children’s hospital

people’s highest expectations

men’s hats

the newly stocked women’s department

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We covered a lot in this article. I hope the examples prove helpful when you have to decide between attributive and possessive. If you have questions, please ask.

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12 Responses to “Am I Possessive?”

  1. Ann says:

    I can’t cite an example off the top of my head, but I think I have seen the Royal order of adjectives changed around creatively a few times especially in poems for example?

    • Ann, there are definitely exceptions to the adjective order. Isn’t that the way it is with everything in writing? We say things like big old ugly house, putting opinion after age. And I’m sure that poets do use a different order to create striking images and phrasing.

  2. John Nichols says:

    Thank you so much your sharing your wisdom through these posts.

  3. Billie Wade says:

    Thank you, Beth, for clarifying the use of the apostrophe. I have often rewritten sentences so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Now, with your guide, I feel more confident.

  4. In your excellent article, you say: “According to the Associated Press Stylebook, we don’t use an apostrophe when that first word ends in an S if it’s a descriptive phrase. As a tip, the AP Stylebook says that if a longer form of the phrase uses for or by rather than of, an apostrophe usually wouldn’t be needed in the shorter version.

    an association for lawyers

    a lawyers association”

    Question: I’m from Canada and was taught in the British tradition, which says that “an association for lawyers” should always have an apostrophe after the first noun: “a lawyers’ association”.

    I know that we Canadians often have spelling and grammatical differences from your American usage. Is this one of them, or have I merely been doing it wrong for the past seven decades?

    • Beverley, I’m not sure if this is a difference according to the type of English used—I couldn’t find the attributive even mentioned in Hart’s—so I don’t want to make assumptions. But the AP recommendation differs from the CMoS recommendation for AmE—CMoS would also likely say lawyers’ association, just as you would—so I’m guessing that you were following the rules as they were presented to you.

      AP and CMoS often have different recommendations since they’re for different audiences. I typically go right along with CMoS, but I can’t see a reason to use the apostrophe and the possessive for certain words simply because they’re plurals. And we definitely don’t use the apostrophe for some plurals (names of ball teams and companies), so without there being a compelling reason for the difference, I see no reason not to be consistent. I presented both the AP and the CMoS recommendations here so that people could see that the recommendations differ. That is, there’s no consensus. So all of us are likely to read both lawyers association and lawyers’ association.

      No one would fault your use of an apostrophe with lawyers’ association; it’s a valid option, so feel free to use it. I’m pointing out that there is another option, one that seems to be consistent with other uses of nouns as attributives.

      I’m glad you brought this up. I’d love to know if the recommendations are different between the Canadian Press Stylebook and Editing Canadian English. Do you have access to both of these? Maybe you could let us know what they recommend in their newest versions.

  5. Yes, you did include much info here.
    I wonder, do we always add an apostrophe and “s” [for possessive] when the word ends in an “s” already? I thought I had learned that if the word already ends in “s” you just add the apostrophe. [your example Giants’ pitcher] Or is it for word sound sense only? [your example Kansas’s]
    Beatles’ songs isn’t pronounced Bea-tles-ses’ songs; like how we would say Jones-ses’ dog [2 syllables]. Do we add the second “s” only when we need to pronounce another syllable to the word for clarification?

    Thanks so much for all you do to assist writers and teachers with grammar.

    • For plurals that end in S, we just add the apostrophe—the babies’ mothers, the dogs’ owners, the Beatles’ songs. For singular words that end in S, we add apostrophe S—Frances’s mother, the class’s pet hamster. (This is according to CMoS. AP has a couple of exceptions to the general rules.)

      CMoS used to make different recommendations, but they’ve simplified their recommendations.

      For something like Jones, we end up with—Mr. Jones’s house (the house belonging to the singular Mr. Jones). The Joneses’ house (the house belonging to the Jones family).

      If you’re following CMoS as your guide, there’s no need to have to consider S or Z sounds or syllables any longer. I find this much easier and definitely consistent.

  6. Kate says:

    Thank you for this article! I am someone who will rewrite a sentence if I just can’t figure out the placement of the apostrophe. I have seen writer’s group, writers’ group, writers group, and writing group!

    I finally decided on writers group: “I joined a writers group this week.” I have also seen varying forms of “mens room.” I’m guessing in both situations, no apostrophe is needed because the first noun is acting as an adjective.

    • Kate, men’s is one of the unusual plural possessives that I mentioned at the end of the article. For these, we add apostrophe S. But writers group without the apostrophe works well. Just be consistent with your rules throughout your story.

  7. Great article, as always, Beth. Question: I believe I’ve also seen constructions like “town council” called ‘compound nouns’. Is there really such an animal, and, if so, is my example valid? Thanks for continuing to educate us all!

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