Pronoun Review #4: Joint Possession

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A reader writes:

I often hear people say sentences like, “His and I’s property.”  “Jimmy and I’s vacation.” I have tried to explain that I’s is not an acceptable genitive pronoun, but I have heard it from many different sources here in Utah. Could you write something about this in your posts?

Because the first person pronoun I has the possessive form my, the construction “Jimmy and I’s vacation” screams “nonstandard English.”

I’ve seen the construction defended as a “phrasal possessive.” The idea is that the apostrophe s is not being added to the subject pronoun I, but to the phrase, “Jimmy and I.”

This argument may satisfy students of linguistics, but it does not satisfy speakers of standard English.

Changing “Jimmy and I’s vacation” to “Jimmy’s and my vacation” may look better, but it does not address the problem. The vacation belongs to two people and my denotes singular possession. The vacation is still jointly owned. According to the standard rule,
if two people possess something jointly, only one apostrophe is needed:

“Alice and Mary’s stove” One stove. The stove is owned by Alice and Mary.

“Alice and Mary’s cats” More than one cat, but all cats belong to Alice and Mary jointly.

If two people own separate things, an apostrophe is added to each name:

“Alice’s and Mary’s cats.” More than one cat. Each woman owns one or more cats.

The problem arises when the speaker wants to link third person with first person, as in “Jimmy and I’s vacation” or “His and I’s property.”

Standard English requires a different construction. One possibility:

Our vacation, Jimmy’s and mine.
Our property, his and mine.

Related post:
Avoid Awkward Joint Possessives

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7 thoughts on “Pronoun Review #4: Joint Possession”

  1. What’s striking about this one is that there is no good alternate. Usually, a way out of grammatical glitches is to re-jig the sentence, but there is really no way to do that here, without the awkward construction proposed, or the addition of several words. (“Sarah and I’s vacation” becomes, “the vacation Sarah and I took”.)

    Which highlights a second point: there’s no one with the authority to create a new way to do this. The various authorities rule on usage by appeal, as far as I can tell, to four things:
    • History of the usage, including etymology
    • Recent and prevailing usage, especially by writers and publications
    • How it sounds or looks – a subjective judgement

    However, no one out and says, from now on we will use “mi” to solve this problem. They rule on usage, but they don’t invent it. For invention, we rely on writers and speakers. We generally condemn grammatical coinages until their utility is demonstrated with time and/or widespread adoption.

    (Issue advocates do invent and prescribe usages, such as “their” in place of “his” to remove gender bias, as in, “everyone has their preference”. These may well gain acceptance, but I’ve never seen one initiated by language authorities.)

    English has been lucky to have writers bold and talented enough to lend it many useful constructs. Today, I’m afraid we’ve a lot less of that, in part because of too many and too strict editors. A lot of grammatical revision will come from patently bad usages gaining traction. It might be nice if we did have some usage czar to propose reasonable solutions to these problems.

  2. Mark,
    You make excellent points.

    This is a usage that certainly has me buffaloed as to the best way to deal with it. I offered the unsatisfactory solutions “Our vacation, Jimmy’s and mine.” and “Our property, his and mine.” In real life, I’d probably go with “Jimmy’s and my vacation.”

  3. Thanks John, Mark and Maeve. Hadn’t come across this one before. Yep! Looks irresolvable. ‘Jimmy’s and me’s cat’, is less of a grammatical barbarism than ‘Jimmy’s and I’s cat. The cat is the property of me, not I. Not that it gives a damn.

    ‘mi’ has a certain elegance but like ‘ze’ or ‘xe’ in the race to replace gendered pronouns, I can’t see it growing legs any time soon.

    It is cause for celebration, rather than regret, that such matters are generally settled by the community of speakers of and writers in a particular language rather than a usage czar. “Czars tend to beget czars, sooner or later begetting a czars’ czar”, said Jimmy’s neutered cat, praying all their punctuation marks, especially those pesky apostrophes, are in the right places.

    Left to a usage czar, those of us still, with the occasional lapse, given to resist the use of the unlovely singular they/their would already have been consigned to some institutional Gulag.

    ‘The vacation taken by Jimmy and me’, avoids rather than resolves the question. Nevertheless I commend it.

  4. “Jimmy’s and my vacation” is positively and irrevocably correct, I opine. Toss Jimmy overboard and it’s still my vacation. There are probably alternatives, but why stray too far from the concise and accurate form?

  5. @Agua Caliente

    Your option – like mine – addresses a different conundrum to that initially posed, to which, IMHO, there is no irrevocable and correct resolution.

    The nearest to the cat’s whiskers is ‘Jimmy’s and me’s vacation’. Correct but stupid.

    Toss the cat overboard and take a vacation, it’s still the vacation, not of ‘I’ but ‘me’. Oh and Jimmy.

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