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Exorcising Those Genitives

Grammatical cases are rarely referred to by name any more, outside of linguistic catacombs, anyway. But genitive is more than a name.

What the genitive case does is to show possession, as in "Linda's demonic red eyes".

(Resolve note: Remember the last time you cringed at sight of a misconstrued genitive (as in the roadside sign Night Crawlers and Worm's? Does that strengthen your resolve to get through this?)

Before we get to the good stuff, a little review. We insert an apostrophe before a final [s] in a word is to show that the [s] is possessive rather than plural (if it were plural and not possessive, no [s]): Mary's boyfriend
Her boyfriend's wishes
A spider's hat

So far so good. But what if, instead of Mary, the boyfriend belongs to Les?

It is common, when a word ends in [s], to add an apostrophe to make the possessive case. Common, but wrong. Confusion arises from two sources: number (as in singular versus plural) and final letter of the word that wants to show possession.

When a singular noun ends in [s], the rule for showing possession remains the same as for nouns not ending in [s]—Simply add ['s], as in: Les's boyfriend
the Williams's boundary
Isaacs's folly
Note 1: If you're not only a confirmed grammar freak but currently fully hyped, you may find it expedient to skip the next note—Without due attentiveness, it is apt to add confusion.
Note 2: You may have noticed that the examples of possessives immediately preceding note 1 are all proper nouns. This is to underplay an exception, with which English grammar is rife.

When a common noun ends with a sibilant sound and addition of ['s] would add another syllable, the possessive [s] is dropped and its apostrophe may or may not be shown, as in [the kiss' portent], or [conscience' sake] (for pity's sake!).

Oh yes—Another exception. In poetic and reverential contexts, [s'], as in [Jesus' words], is acceptable.

This has been brought to you compliments of Fowler's "Modern English Usage" and the Writress' atavistic zeal.

Now that we're all straight on that (if on nothing else), we'll examine plural nouns wherein, to show possession, one must focus on the final letter—[s] versus any other final letter. Plural nouns ending in anything but [s] are quite straightforward; they show possession by adding, as one might expect were language to be logical, simply ['s] (and that's apostrophe s): children's whispers
the data's portent
the people's court

Now at last we see where [s'] has its proper place. When a plural noun ending in [s] shows possession, only an apostrophe is added: the birds' screeching
ladies' night
five years' imprisonment
(versus one year's imprisonment, because?Former is plural while latter is singular.

This was a test.
This was only a test.

Remember that the case for showing possession (being the genitive case) is the same for three out of four grammatical situations:

Add ['s] for all singular nouns, whatever their final letter (but see note 2), and for plural nouns ending in anything but [s].

When plural nouns end in [s], add only an apostrophe to show possession.

To make sense of when to use in [s'] versus [s's] in the genitive case and avoid the tendency to dispense with any apostrophe at all, you'll want to be aware of these potential trip-wires.


Some Handy Trip-Wire Disentanglers
to Cover Every Genitive

When the word is: Singular Plural
  any word proper noun any word proper noun
not ending in s one year's imprisonment Jake's worst trait the charwomen's labor union the People's Republic
ending in s for goodness' sake (see note 2) Charles's thews my parents' house the Joneses' ethics
Remember, folks, possession need not be exorcised,
even if you exercise your genitives!

Baby Dement
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