Grammar Quiz #2: Possessives

By Mark Nichol

All but one of the following sentences demonstrate incorrect style for treatment of possessives according to The Chicago Manual of Style; revise sentences as necessary:

1. I walked over to the Smith’s house.

2. Our hostess’ nerves are shot.

3. I went to my aunt’s and uncle’s anniversary celebration.

4. She made it onto the girls basketball team.

5. I sent flowers to her on Mother’s Day.

Answers and Explanations

Rules for possessives are complex, and they vary according to different style guides. Determine which style is appropriate for the kind of writing you do, and study a handbook appropriate to that kind of writing.

1.
Original: I walked over to the Smith’s house.
Correct : I walked over to the Smiths’ house.

The house is occupied by the Smiths, not the Smith, so the name must be treated as a plural possessive.

2.
Original: Our hostess’ nerves are shot.
Correct : Our hostess’s nerves are shot.

Words ending in “s” are not exempt from requiring an “s” after the possessive apostrophe.

3.
Original: I went to my aunt’s and uncle’s anniversary celebration.
Correct : I went to my aunt and uncle’s anniversary celebration.

When a pair of nouns is considered a single entity or group, only the second noun should be in the possessive form. (However, when two closely linked nouns are nevertheless clearly associated with distinct referents, both nouns should be in the possessive form, as in “I researched my aunt’s and uncle’s family backgrounds.”)

4.
Original: She made it onto the girls basketball team.
Correct : She made it onto the girls’ basketball team.

When a word can take either a possessive form (in this case, girls’, as in “for girls”) or an attributive form (here, girls, as in “of girls”), the possessive form is usually more appropriate.

5.
Original: I sent flowers to her on Mother’s Day.
Correct : I sent flowers to her on Mother’s Day.

Holiday names ending in s vary as whether they are attributive (Veterans Day), singular possessive (Saint Patrick’s Day), or plural possessive (April Fools’ Day). Celebrations of mothers and fathers are singular possessive, so this sentence is correct.

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7 Responses to “Grammar Quiz #2: Possessives”

  • Curtis Manges

    I disagree with CMOS on #2, which can result in train wrecks like “hostesses’s.” This is not the way I was taught in grade school.

    I’ve heard that they did this to simplify the rules, but sometimes a special case is worth the extra effort of learning it.

  • Earl Owens

    Shouldn’t the answer for #4 be reversed or am I misunderstanding something? Isn’t the possessive form girls’ equal to “of girls” and girls equal to the attributive form of “for girls”? That would be the opposite of what you stated. Just wondering. Thanks!
    _________________
    When a word can take either a possessive form (in this case, girls’, as in “for girls”) or an attributive form (here, girls, as in “of girls”), the possessive form is usually more appropriate.

  • venqax

    “I disagree with CMOS on #2, which can result in train wrecks like “hostesses’s.” This is not the way I was taught in grade school.”
    No it doesn’t. You would have hostess’s or hostesses’. Never hostesses’s. I do appreciate the encouragement from MN to point out that just because a word ends in S, there is no reason to exempt it from the ‘S rule for singular possessives. I know some “style” guides say otherwise, but there is simply no reason for it. Sometimes what you learned in grade school isn’t quite so.

  • Matia

    Curtis Manges, taking “hostesses’s” to be “a special case”, I hope my addition is an “extra effort of learning” to you/us.

    I think Mark’s explanation is okay, perhaps needing a small addition to become:

    “Words ending in “s” [that aren’t already plural possessives ending in “s”] are not exempt from requiring an “s” after the possessive apostrophe.”

    And,

    I think Earl Owens is right on “Isn’t the possessive form girls’ equal to “of girls” and girls equal to the attributive form of “for girls”?”; Mark’s must have been an oversight.

  • Agua Caliente

    And how about a topic called, “Erroneous Grammar and Usage Rules You Learned in Grade School “?

  • Roberta B.

    I think Earl has a point. I also believe the word that looks like a possessive is more appropriate (and less confusing) as a descriptor in these cases (sorry, no source). For example: girls basketball team, homeowners association, etc.

  • thebluebird11

    LOL @agua caliente

    AFA hostess’ vs hostess’s: I think somewhere along the line I also was told that the additional S at the end was sort of optional, or even preferred to be left off. However, when SPEAKING, we pronounce the single (possessive) S after the SS ending of hostess’s” (i.e. we say “hostessez”), but we would never write hostesses’s because we would never pronounce it “hostessezez.” I imagine the same holds true for a name ending in S, like Thomas. If the man’s first name were Thomas, we would write “Thomas’s house” because we would SAY “Thomasez house” (not “Thomas house”). I am hoping that if it were a family name and the house belonged to the Thomases, we would write “the Thomases’ house” and not “The Thomases’s house” because I personally would not SAY “The Thomasezez house.”

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