Answers to Questions About Possessives

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Here are three queries from DailyWritingTips.com readers about pesky apostrophes, followed by my responses.

1. Please tell me the proper placement of an apostrophe when making possessive a singular abbreviation that ends in an s. In other words, for “Office of Financial Services,” should it be written OFS’s or OFS’, or something different?

Either form is correct, depending on which style you use. Associated Press style, for example, which prevails in newspaper journalism and other less formal contexts, requires the possessive form for the spelled-out name as shown here: “The Office of Financial Services’ report has been delayed,” so the abbreviated form is “The OFS’ report has been delayed.”

However, The Chicago Manual of Style, which prevails in book publishing and other more formal contexts, and similar style guides recommend, for example, “The Office of Financial Services’s report has been delayed.” The abbreviated form is “The OFS’s report has been delayed.” I recommend this style. (Note that an s follows the apostrophe even when a word or an abbreviation ends in s, such as in “Thomas’s report has been delayed.”)

2. I edit corporate documents that use this rule: The first time a government name appears in the document, spell out the name — for example, National Institutes of Health — and follow it in parentheses with its acronym (NIH). But when the name’s first appearance in the document is in the possessive form, do I use the possessive form in the parentheses? For example, should it read, “The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) new mandate is clear” or “The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) new mandate is clear”?

The Chicago Manual of Style does not cover this issue, but its website recommends what I suggest to resolve the related issue in this post: Recast the sentence to avoid the possessive form (“The new mandate of the National Institutes of Health is clear”).

3. The title of a brochure I’m designing is “Wholesale Buyer’s Guide.” Is the possessive apostrophe needed on Buyer’s, or is it just “Wholesale Buyers Guide”? Or, perhaps, “Wholesale Buyers’ Guide”?

“Buyers Guide,” “Buyer’s Guide,” and “Buyers’ Guide” are all common, and they all have some merit, though I favor the latter.

In “Buyers Guide,” Buyers is an attributive noun — one that serves as an adjective (just like school in “school bus” or window in “window seat”). It means, essentially, “guide of the buyers,” which I don’t think sufficiently expresses that idea that it’s something offered for someone’s use.

“Buyer’s Guide” suggests that it’s for one person — technically correct, but the guide was created for all buyers, not just one, so I think “Buyers’ Guide” is the best option.

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9 thoughts on “Answers to Questions About Possessives”

  1. On a somewhat related topic, I am working on a book about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. The plural of those roles is mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, of course. The author has used MIL/DIL throughout to abbreviate. But then what is the plural? MILs/DILs has been used, but that implies that the plural falls at the end of the hyphenated noun, which it does not. MsIL/DsIL?

  2. As one of those with a surname that ends with ‘s’ I like to insist that the possessive of Cairns is Cairns’s and cannot be Cairns’. This is not a matter of style; it is a matter of clarity. Consider “the Cairns’ house”. Is this the house where a number of people called Cairn live? Say out loud: “Bill Cairns’ house”. Does Bill Cairn live there?

  3. Dawn:

    Mother-in-law and similar constructions include what’s called a postpositive adjective, in which an adjective follows the noun it modifies. The second words in “attorney general” and “accounts payable” are also postpositive adjectives. In abbreviations of such terms, ignore the position of the plural form, and attach the s at the end or omit it altogether. For example, “attorneys general” is abbreviated AGs, not AsG, and “accounts payable” is abbreviated AP, not AsP. If you’re going to abbreviate mothers-in-law, MILs is the way to go.

  4. Bill:

    When a name ends in s, the plural form of the name is augmented by es: for example, “the Joneses,” “the Richardses,” and “the Cairnses.” Your house is the Cairnses’ house.

  5. 3. A small nit to pick. You write,

    “Buyers Guide,” “Buyer’s Guide,” and “Buyers’ Guide” are all common, and they all have some merit, though I favor the latter.

    Of course, you mean “the last”; “the latter” is used when there are two choices.

  6. … “the latter” is used when there are two choices.
    Or not even then. Some style guides discourage the use of former-latter in any context in favor of the first and second/third/last. I am not sure why.

  7. Jan:

    I wrote this post about genitive possessives, the final item of which answers your question, but I’ll respond here, too: The experience “belongs” to the period, so “eight years’ experience” is correct.

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