A Word, Please

Possessives create confusion

The English language has many awesome powers, perhaps none more awesome than its power to make people feel stupid. If you fancy yourself skilled with the language you may not see my point. So allow me to illustrate.

Do you go to a farmers’ market or a farmers market?

Do you have two years experience or two years’ experience?

If one mother-in-law shares an idea with another mother-in-law, is it the mothers’-in-laws idea, the mother’s-in-laws idea, the mothers’-in-law idea or the mothers-in-law’s idea?

Is it Tim and Stephanie’s apartment or Tim’s and Stephanie’s?

What about their cars? Are those Tim and Stephanie’s cars? Or are they Tim’s and Stephanie’s cars?

Do you put an apostrophe in Mothers/Mother’s Day, Presidents/Presidents’ Day, Veterans/Veteran’s Day and Valentines/Valentine’s/Valentines’ Day?

Are you a friend of Mary or a friend of Mary’s?

Is it possible you have a driver’s-side window and a passenger-side airbag?

Why does the cat’s tail take an apostrophe but its tail does not? Similarly, why is it that “who’s” is not possessive but “whose” is?

You may have noticed that all these head-scratchers have something in common. They’re all possessives.

Possessives create more confusion than perhaps any other aspect of our language. To get a handle on them, it helps to start from a position of confidence. So here’s your 100% true pep talk: It’s not stupid to be confused by these. It’s not you, it’s the language. And even people who get paid to know this stuff get overwhelmed sometimes.

You can tackle all these problems by taking them one by one.

We’ll start with farmers market. Here’s an interesting fact about nouns. Sometimes you can use them as adjectives. In “farmers market” the nonpossessive “farmers” is being used “attributively,” that is, as an adjective. “Farmers’ market” shows possession. So if you want to emphasize that it’s a market belonging to the farmers, use the possessive. If you want to emphasize that it’s about farmers, you can leave out the apostrophe, as many major publications do.

Two years’ experience and your dollar’s worth are considered “quasi possessives,” which means the apostrophe is the preferred choice in both.

The plural of mother-in-law is mothers-in-law. The possessive of mother-in-law is mother-in-law’s. To get the plural possessive, do both those things: put the plural S on mother and the possessive S and apostrophe on law: “It was their mothers-in-law’s idea.”

Tim and Stephanie’s apartment shares a single apostrophe and S because they share possession of the apartment. But they own their cars separately, so they’re Stephanie’s and Tim’s cars.

For holidays like Mother’s Day and Presidents Day, it’s impossible to know whether to treat them as possessive. Check your dictionary. But be warned: Dictionaries sometimes disagree on these.

Some people consider “a friend of Mary’s” an error — a “double genitive” — because the apostrophe S is doing the same job as the word “of,” doubling up the possession. But compare “a friend of me” with “a friend of mine” and you can see that sometimes doubling up on the possession is better. So both forms are acceptable.

As for your driver’s-side window and your passenger-side airbag, a tip: When your dictionary lets you down, Google is your friend. The 620,000 hits for “passenger-side airbag” when compared with the 24,000 hits for “passenger’s-side airbag” tell you which one is standard in the auto industry.

As for possessive pronouns like “its,” “whose” and “hers,” all you can do is remember that possession is incorporated into the word, so there’s no need for an apostrophe. That’s why “The cat groomed its tail” takes no apostrophe. An apostrophe would give you “it’s,” which means “it is” or “it has.” “Who’s” is not possessive, either. It means “who is” or “who has”: Who’s seen my notebook? Whose red notebook is that?

Can’t commit all these to memory? No problem. Answers are usually available in dictionaries, grammar books or trusted sites on the web. The important thing is to remember you can handle them if you try.