Friday, April 5, 2013

Advice for Plural Possession

We had two recent requests to help clear up the usage of "advice" vs. "advise" and the occasional tongue twisting use of joint vs. separate possession. So let's just combine the two and have a grammar party today!

What I'm about to do is advise you, to give you useful advice about possession.

First, to help assist your mind in remembering the use of the verb "advise," I want you to picture a bright future—yours, to be exact—and gee whiz, it's so bright you can hardly stand to look straight into it. You need a visor. You know, one of those tennis hats without the cap, just a velcro or elastic band that wraps around the back of your head to keep the sun-shading bill snug above your forehead. Ah, see how nicely the visor helps you see into your future?

To advise (verb) is to give counsel and direction, to give someone a recommendation about what should be done. Those who advise intend to help others see better what lies ahead.

Sure enough, giving advice (noun) is something an advisor will often do. It's something parents do, too. Remember? We all hated that. It was like so totally the worst. They took all the fun out of being young. Their advice felt like a cage, like . . . like a VICE! You know, like they were constricting us by giving us advice, trapping us. Those pesky parents.

So now let me, your caring peer, offer you advice and advise you in the ways of wielding the words of possession.

The question we received was from Madison:

You're right, Madison. Hairy indeed. Let's see if we can comb our way through this topic together. Visors ready!

First off, possession refers to belonging. That visor belongs to me, therefore it is mine.

Here are the possessive pronoun words:

his, her/hers
its (notice, no apostrophe!)
your/yours (notice, no apostrophe!)

Did you notice how the possessive pronouns have no apostrophes? None of them! That may help you remember when to use it's/its and you're/your. If the context of the sentence includes belonging or ownership and a pronoun in place of its preceding noun, don't use apostrophes.
Mike loves ice cream in a cone; it's his favorite.
Cheri can't stand the way her ice cream makes its cone all soggy.
As you can see, "it's" is a contraction of two words: it is. It + is = it's. But ice cream + its cone = soggy. The cone belongs to the ice cream. Soggy belongs to the slow eaters.

But, I thought apostrophes were always used in possession, you say? Quite often, yes! Just not with the pronouns. So memorize the apostropheless pronouns and then you possess quite the advantage in the world of word ownership.

The other basic possessive wording is when one noun belongs to another noun.
The cat's pajamas fit her quite nicely.
Nancy's cat pajamas are too big for her
Nancy's cat's pajamas are much too small for Nancy. 
Noun: cat
Noun: pajamas
Proper noun: Nancy

Notice the possessive pronoun "her" is not used in the third example because there are two preceding (antecedent) nouns the pronoun could refer to: Nancy and the cat. We had to specify that the cat's pajamas were much too small for Nancy. Also notice how pajamas doesn't have an apostrophe. This may seem obvious, but still many people add apostrophes to nouns thinking if they add an "s" they should add an apostrophe for good measure. Not a good measure! Here's a better measure:

To make MOST/ALMOST ALL words plural, simply add "s" or in certain cases "es"; no apostrophe needed. As always, the safest reference is the dictionary!
Thumbs, ups and downs, churches, fixes, boys and girls, potatoes and tomatoes;
Chicago also lists: dos and don'ts, threes and fours, thank-yous, yeses and nos and maybes, ifs and buts
And don't forget those irregulars:
babies (never "baby's" for plural infants), children, data (plural of datum), leaves, geese, etc.
And here's what Chicago says about other plurals with apostrophes that AREN'T possessive (see 16.7.5–16.7.30 for everything plural and possessive).
7.14 Plurals for letters, abbreviations, and numerals. Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s
the three Rs; x's and y's; the 1990s; IRAs; URLs; BSs, MAs, PhDs; vols., eds.;
So basically, it's safer to add JUST the s if you're making something plural.

But the possessive apostrophes and possessive pronouns sure get hairy. Let's discuss joint versus separate possession, like Madison asked about.

Chicago 16.7.22: Joint versus separate possession. Basically, the concept is, does the cat belong to both Morgan and Madison? Or do they each have their own cat?

One cat owned by both:
Morgan and Madison's cat (apostrophe only links to name closest to the noun "cat")
Two cats, one owned by Morgan, the other by Madison:
Morgan's and Madison's cats (notice the plural noun "cats")
But if there MUST be a pronoun in the sentence, like there is in Madison's example, it gets confusing. "Fluffy is Morgan's and my cat" would be grammatically correct, but it sounds funny. It sounds worse as "the cat of Morgan and mine," so we might try another twist: "Morgan and I own this cat, Fluffy. She sheds like crazy."
"Bill's and my car was towed last night," or "The car Bill and I own got towed last night."

Questions? Suggestions for next week's post? Leave us a comment.


  1. the aforementioned MadisonApril 5, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    Egads! An unnecessary apostrophe on in the last paragraph!
    --> But if there MUST be a pronoun in the sentence, like there is in Madison's example, it get's confusing.
    The get's! Wait. Is this a test? In that case I pass! Hooray me! Also, thanks very much for this post. I guess I'm just gonna have to switch my sentences around a bit, or just speak like Yoda. Whatever.

  2. yes, of course, Madison . . . that WAS a test. You truly earned some serious Castle clout today. Good job!