Odd or Particularly Troublesome Possessives in the English Language
Most possessive or genitive nouns in the English language are relatively straightforward to form and use, but there are some constructions that are odd or simply difficult to use correctly. The usual way in which to form a possessive noun is to add either an apostrophe (’) and an ‘s’ or an apostrophe alone to the end of it. In a few instances, however, it is the ‘s’ alone that should be added. This is the case with the personal pronouns ‘our,’ ‘your,’ ‘her’ and ‘their.’ Although these are already possessive forms (‘our car,’ ‘your paper’ etc.), an ‘s’ can be added for a somewhat different use of the possessive, as in ‘the car is ours,’ ‘the paper is yours,’ ‘the dog is hers’ and ‘the hotel is theirs.’
An ‘s’ alone should also be added to the pronoun ‘it’ to form the genitive case, so ‘the house lost its shingles in the storm’ is correct. As this possessive is frequently the site of error, please note that when both an apostrophe and an ‘s’ are added to ‘it,’ the result (it’s) is not a possessive, but a contraction meaning either ‘it is’ or ‘it has.’
Names of wars known by their length also take an ‘s’ alone, as in ‘the Hundred Years War,’ which should not be written ‘the Hundred Years’ War,’ ‘the Hundred Year’s War’ or ‘the Hundred Year War.’ Finally, the names of some businesses and institutions, whether singular or plural, that were originally possessive are now generally written without an apostrophe: ‘a Woolworths store’ and ‘the Citizens Advice Bureau.’
The relative pronoun ‘who’ is a unique case because ‘se’ without an apostrophe must be added to its end to form the genitive, as it is in ‘the student whose essay won the award.’ ‘Whose’ can also serve as the possessive of ‘which,’ with ‘the book whose author became an overnight success’ being correct and to some writers preferable to ‘the book of which the author became an overnight success.’
The nouns or pronouns that precede gerunds present particularly thorny problems when it comes to deciding upon whether a possessive should be used or not. In some cases, the possessive definitely should not be used: in ‘students registering for English classes should line up at the front desk,’ the ‘students’ are the subjects, but an apostrophe on that word would imply that ‘registering’ was the subject and would therefore be incorrect. In other cases, a possessive is clearly necessary: in ‘Sarah’s driving saved them from the accident,’ for instance, it is Sarah’s ‘driving’ that is the subject of the sentence, so her name acts as an adjective and should take the possessive form, which happens, in this case, to sound natural. However, in ‘the father worried about his daughters’ going to the party alone,’ the plural possessive (daughters’) might seem awkward or even pedantic to some authors and readers, and the apostrophe will therefore often be omitted. Yet the construction is acceptable with or without the genitive marker: the possessive emphasises the ‘going’ as the object of the father’s worry, while ‘daughters’ without the apostrophe emphasises the ‘daughters’ as the objects of worry.
When dealing with gerunds, imagining a sentence with the noun in question replaced by the relevant pronoun can be helpful. In my first two examples above, for instance, ‘their’ instead of ‘students’ and ‘she’ instead of ‘Sarah’s’ make nonsense of the sentences, confirming that a possessive is not needed in the first case, but is in the second. In the third example, however, ‘their going’ for ‘daughters’ going’ and ‘them going’ for ‘daughters going’ both sound as correct as the nouns themselves. In such hazy cases, it is best to use whatever form sounds most natural to you and to maintain consistent usage in similar instances throughout your document.
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