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Possessive apostrophes
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Arrosane asks:

The use of the apostrophe with nouns to show ownership (Saxon Genitive?) has always puzzled me. I haven't been able to find a convincing rule in any of the grammar or usage books where I've checked. Some advise you to avoid using it with things, ideas or animals, whereas some others accept this use.

I found the following examples which don't sound right to my non-native ear:

  • The plant's roots
  • The library's entire store
  • The aeroplane's fuel tank
  • The safes' contents
  • The book's cover
  • The atlas's index
  • The double bass's case
  • The robin's nest
  • Last season's fashion

I'd also like to know what usage is more common with people's names ending in 's'.
'Charles' briefcase' or 'Charles's briefcase'?
'Mr Evans' daughter' or 'Mr Evans's daughter'?

Do you pronounce both of them in the same way?

What concerns me most, however, is whether there is a rule which will allow me to generate my own grammatical utterances.


Roger replies:

This is a very difficult area to advise on, Arrosane, as it usually boils down to what sounds right is right. All the examples of possessives that you quote are quite plausible and sound quite natural. But I would also agree with the advice 'when in doubt, use the of the construction.'

In general there is some preference for the possessive pattern when a person, rather than a thing, is being described. Thus, we would have:

  • 'My uncle's return was delayed.'
  • 'The contents of the drawer were strewn all over the floor.'
However, person might be extended to include animals or groups of human beings, so we would have:
  • the donkey's tail
  • the audience's reaction
  • the government's majority
The possessive form is also usual whenthe relationship of possession is described, so we would say:
  • 'My grandmother's furniture was mostly Victorian.'
When people's names end in 's', you can either add ' or 's (Charles' or Charles's) and choose pronunciation accordingly, either /iz/ or /isiz/. You might sometimes need to choose the latter to make the meaning clear.
For example, if you speak the sentence:
  • 'My house is older than Mrs Evans''
with just /iz/ at the end, you may be saying that your house is older than Mrs Evans herself, or that your house is older than Mrs Evans' house! But if you say:
  • 'My house is older than Mrs Evans's''

with /isiz/ at the end, it is clear that you are talking about houses in both cases!

I hope that is clear!