Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pesky Possessives

Today on Comcast's home page I saw this headline:

Paris' DUI Pinch a Boost to Party Image
By SANDY COHEN, AP Entertainment Writer

Now, leave alone the fact that this is a headline about that great icon of inanity, Paris Hilton, and consider for a moment the indication of possessiveness. Ms. (Mr.?) Cohen saw fit to alert us to the fact that the DUI belonged to Paris by simply adding an apostrophe to the end of that bird-brained socialite's 's-ending' name. Is the AP Entertainment Writer correct?

Possessives certainly are pesky. My friend, Sabina, and I went to see the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. Our enjoyment of this film was marred by the punctuation quandary in which we were mired. Both of us recalled (whether correctly or not) from our formative years of English language instruction that in order to indicate possessiveness of a name or noun ending in 's' we were merely to place an apostrophe at the end, regardless of whether the noun were singular or plural. We were very confused as to why the title of the film (and book) contained what we saw as a superfluous 's.' Like Sandy Cohen, we would have given Miss Jones only an apostrophe to give her possession of that diary.

Thankfully, there is an accessible authority on grammar to which to turn that can relieve the minds of the linguistically pure (and those who want to be). It is Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner (Riverhead Books, 1996). She unravels the riddle of possessives as such:
  • If the word is singular, always add 's, regardless of its ending. (This is true even if the ending is s, z, or x -- whether sounded or silent.) The waiter spilled red wine on Demi's dress, which came from Kansas's finest shop. The dress's skirt, which resembled a tutu from one of Degas's paintings, was ruined. Etc.
  • If the word is plural and doesn't already end in s, add 's: The children's menu was a rip-off, and the men's room was painted fuchsia.
  • If the word is plural and ends in an s, add just the apostrophe: The Willises' car was stolen . . . The cops' attitude was surly. The victims' evening was now demolished. (p. 38-39)

Here is an added plea from a concerned citizen: Please, please do not indicate a couple or family by adding an apostrophe or an 's. For instance, I pass by on my walks to and from our neighborhood park a house whose mailbox contains the following designation: The Lewis'. This is wrong all around. I think that the residents meant to indicate that this was where you could find a family called The Lewises. Or, perhaps, they were looking for a short way to indicate that this mailbox is the place to deposit what is The Lewises' mail. One of these long winter nights I may have to enact some vigilante grammatical repairs with stick-on letters and fix that travesty.

Anyway, back to Ms. (Mr.?) Sandy Cohen. You do not want to be harsh on someone whose life must hold little in the way of reward, considering her line of work necessarily includes writing articles on that walking advertisement for the inheritance tax, Paris Hilton. Add to that, should Sandy be a man, he then has the whole androgynous name issue to deal with. So, I'm not meaning to pound on this poor reporter of the unimportant and uninspiring. However, it can not be denied that this writer should have added an ''s' to Ol' Drunky's name instead of a lonely apostrophe.

And I'm glad we've had the opportunity to clear up this pressing concern. Carry on, carry on.


Evi said...

I absolutely love that you actually took the time to blog about something annoyingly picky like that. Sometimes we just have to get it off our chest don't we? I do that too.
It helps too that it makes us feel smart for a few moments in our whirlwind day filled with toddler talk and encounters with clueless grocery clerks and such...

Flicka Spumoni said...


I like this pic much better!

You are exacting, delightfully exacting and rare.

I have been educated today - and now have a lot of editing to do in my book. The Chidels' things need to be given back to the Chidelses.

Flicka Spumoni said...


And this is unabashed soliciting - but, I've posted my review over at The Ranting Room of Beloved. If you get the chance, would you chek it out?

CrazyJo said...

I'd always wondered about the whole issue, and was quite happy when my English teacher cleared it up for me in college. I'd forgotten the 3rd rule, though, so thanks for the reminder! ;D Of course, I still manage to butcher our language on a regular basis, but that can be a different post for ya'! :D

Morris said...

"Icon of inanity" LOL
Love that - it sings..