Every time I think it’s useless to rehash basic GUMmy stuff, something happens to prove me wrong. This time it was seeing an incorrectly formed plural possessive of a proper noun in a published children’s book.
I saw red.
So, I’m writing what’s sure to become the first in an informal series on the basics. Welcome, and I hope you enjoy the ride.
First, let’s talk about plural formation. There are two basic types: regular and irregular. A regular plural simply adds -s or -es to the singular form, like this:
An irregular plural sometimes changes the form of the noun, like this:
But sometimes, it doesn’t change at all.
Now, what if we need to form a possessive of those plurals?
Well, for the regularly formed plurals, we only have to add an apostrophe. That’s how it’s done. Honest. Just an apostrophe.
houses’ (as in “All those houses’ exteriors will be repainted according to the HOA’s specifications”)
cars’ (as in “Their cars’ bumpers were torn off in the collision”)
But for the irregularly formed plurals, we need to add an apostrophe and an S.
geese’s (as in “The geese’s diet was organic”)
mice’s (as in “The mice’s blood was sampled every six hours”)
dice’s (as in “The dice’s results were suspect”)
deer’s (as in “The three deer’s hides were tanned behind the cabin”)
moose’s (as in “I heard those moose’s bellows from all the way down by the river”)
Now, what about a proper term, like Taino? That’s the name of the indigenous people Columbus met when he landed in 1492. In the free version of the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, it states that the plural is either “Taino” or “Tainos.” The first one’s irregular (the form doesn’t change at all), and the second is regular (just adding an S). Form the possessives according to the rules: Taino’s OR Tainos’. Context helps the reader know when “Taino’s” is plural. (And if it doesn’t, it should.)
Similarly, if your surname is Dickens, a number of you are the Dickenses. Together, all of you live in the Dickenses’ house. (Sure, you can say “there’s the Dickens house,” but the meaning’s not the same, and it totally misses the point of this post.) It’s a regular plural that adds -es to the singular form, so you use only an apostrophe to form the plural possessive. We’re the Conlins. Our house is the Conlins’ house. Regularly formed plural takes only an apostrophe.
There are no stylistic variations for forming plural possessives. This isn’t a guideline; it’s a rule.
There you have the basics. Remember, this is only for plural possessives. If we need a refresher on forming possessives of proper names like “James,” I’ll cover that in a separate post. (Hint: there are stylistic variations for forming proper singular possessives.)
6 thoughts on “Back to basics: forming plural possessives”
So I’d be wrong saying three deer hides …? which falls more naturally to the tongue.
Not at all. That’s using “deer” as an adjective. I agree, it’s more natural-sounding, but I needed to use the plural possessive form in my example.
I hate writing examples.
The thing about English is, we have so many ways to say the same thing and all of the ways are grammatical. Not all are the best, but they’re all okay.
Thinking on this more (and being on my desktop instead of my phone!), I’ve come up with a new example:
The three deer’s antlers still had velvet hanging from them.
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A recent line edit on one of my novels made me aware of the grammar I still need to learn. Some of the stuff that came up sounded very old-fashioned. In that I haven’t read any novels recently bothering about such details. If it’s the US/Aus&NZ divide, I say let’s all go US. But a howl of protest went up in my local scene when I suggested it
I’m curious, now. “Sounded old-fashioned” to me suggests that perhaps the editor didn’t understand the needed register and voice, and was trying to make it “more proper” or something. That’s a no-no.
I did think that. Then, jumping from the frying pan into the fire I signed up with a large US Coy to turn my book into ebook and print-on-demand files. They were keen on me agreeing to an edit to smoothe out my language they said. To make it easier to read. Maybe on their part it was value-adding but I didn’t sign up. Back to square 1.