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”?