Answers to Questions About Apostrophes

By Mark Nichol

Here are three questions from readers about use of apostrophes to mark possession or plurality, followed by my responses.

1. When I have a list of people who all possess something, how do I handle the apostrophe(s)? Which of the following sentences is correct?:

“Today is John, Mary, and my second anniversary with the company.”

“Today is John’s, Mary’s, and my second anniversary with the company.”

“Today is John, Mary’s, and my second anniversary with the company.”

“Today is John’s, Mary’s, and my second anniversary with the company” is correct, because the possessive (or, more accurately, genitive) function of my covers only itself, and each of the names needs its own possessive markers — they can’t share one. (Even “Today is John and Mary’s second anniversary with the company” works only if they joined as a single unit; by contrast, “Today is John and Mary’s second wedding anniversary” is correct because it implies that they united as a couple.)

2. Which of the following options regarding the apostrophe s is correct?:

“This view of Smith regarding the relation between rationality and social contexts is inspired by Marx’s philosophy.”

“This view of Smith’s regarding the relation between rationality and social contexts is inspired by Marx’s philosophy.”

The apostrophe plus s is correct: This is an example of the possessive, or genitive, case; the view “belongs” to Smith, so it should be treated as if you wrote “Smith’s view . . . .” (One could also write, “This view from Smith . . .,” but the possessive form reads better.)

3. Recently, there was a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read, “The what if’s of Iraq.” Is the apostrophe in if’s correct?

No. It should read, “The what ifs of Iraq” (or, better yet, what-ifs), just as one would refer to more than one no as nos (not no’s) and a list of recommendations as “dos and don’ts” (not don’t’s). The editors probably thought that “what ifs” looks odd, but they violated the rule “Minimize exceptions”: They wouldn’t (one hopes) insert a second apostrophe in don’ts, so why put an extraneous one in “what ifs”?

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5 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Apostrophes”

  • Fi

    My copy of Butcher’s Copy-editing claims that it is correct to add apostrophes for phrases such as “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”. I vehemently object to such a notion, since it creates a new rule regarding apostrophe use. Seeing your comment on “what ifs” and “dos and don’ts”, it seems like you would agree. I would write: “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts” to avoid any confusion that the word “is” could bring about if i and t were lower case. Do you have any alternative solution?

  • Matt Gaffney

    The author’s comment on the first example is dead-on correct.

    The author’s second example and comment are rather garbled. I suspect that it was done on the fly and never proofed—a common problem for many overconfident writers.

    I imagine that one of the two sentences had “Marx'” rather than “Marx’s” and I also imagine that the author meant to discuss “of Smith” vs. “of Smith’s,” but got distracted.

    The correct structure is “Smith’s view . . . Marx’s philosophy.” Of course, “of Smith’s” is a silly double genitive and “of Smith” is awkward.

    The third example is easily resolved by looking in a dictionary, a tiresome task for many nowadays. “What-if” is both a noun and an adjective. It’s hyphenated. It’s pluralized by adding an “s.” To write “what if” as either a noun or an adjective is incorrect from the get-go. No intelligent, educated, experienced proofreader or editor would ever pass on “what if.”

    I imagine that some of the confusion re apostrophes is sparked and fed by the New York Times’s style book, which pluralizes decades with “‘s” rather than with a mere “s,” e.g., “the 1920’s,” not the “the 1920s.” Following the Times’s rule, how would it structure the possessive of a decade? Would it be “the 1920’s’ Zeitgeist” or the obviously correct “the 1920s’ Zeitgeist”?

  • Marc McDermott

    No. 1 may be correct, but the x-y-and-my construction is not the best example of the linked-noun possessive Nichol is attempting to explain.

    First, let’s examine the rule using more tractable subjects like “John, Mary, and Joe.” The Chicago Manual of Style (7.22) states that “closely linked nouns are considered a single unit in forming the possessive when the thing being ‘possessed’ is the same for both; only the second element takes the possessive form.” The subjects John, Mary, and Joe, then, are rendered “John, Mary, and Joe’s” because their company anniversary, falling in the same 24-hour period, is “possessed” just as well by all as by one. (If John, Mary, and Joe do, in fact, have company anniversaries on different days, then yes, the proper construction would be “John’s, Mary’s, and Joe’s.”)

    Now we can move on to our problematic x-y-and-my example. Only one subject, the last one, requires a possessive, But Nichol states correctly that “the possessive function of my only covers itself.” Thus the construction “John, Mary, and my” does not seem to fall under clear grammar rules. If we slavishly follow the discrete grammar rules, we might conclude that “Today is John, Mary’s, and my second anniversary with the company” would be most correct: Mary’s possessive ‘s would apply to her and to John, who share possession of an all-day anniversary with a company, and my’s possessive function would, as usual, cover only itself. But such a construction seems odd. The best advice I’ve found (from the Chicago Manual’s online forums, among other places) is to avoid x-y-and-my entirely and recast the sentence (Today John, Mary and I celebrate our second anniversary with the company). The second-best advice I’ve found is Nichol’s advice above: it seems more consistent, more parallel, to make all the subjects possessive than to pick and choose.

    My girlfriend, an editor at S&P, has been debating the x-y-and-my construction with me for some months now. We’ve only agreed on the “recast the sentence” fix-all. Kudos to Mark Nichols for teasing one out another one.

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Fi

    Your solution is valid and correct, but it would inevitably confuse someone or, at least, someone would claim that it was confusing. Recasting to the rescue. Change the sentence to “Be sure to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before you submit your report.”

  • Trevor

    @ Matt
    I think you are being rather harsh on the author.

    I initially thought that there was a typo and that one sentence should have “Marx’”, but that’s because I overlooked the first difference.
    On my reading the author IS discussing “of Smith” vs. “of Smith’s”.

    I don’t dispute that “Smith’s view . . . Marx’s philosophy” may be a suitable ‘structure’, but we cannot say that it is “the correct structure” without knowing what preceded the quoted sentence. If the original writer was discussing ONE of Smith’s views as distinct from other views that Smith had, then the construction could be appropriate.

    Additionally, “view of Smith” is not “awkward” as you have said, but plainly wrong, since “This view of Smith” suggests that we are looking at (or discussing) Smith himself, not his views.

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