Fun with the Apostrophe

I was right. It is Dan and Kate’s Rehearsal Dinner, not Dan’s and Kate’s Rehearsal Dinner.

And it only took me 40 minutes paging through three reference books to find the rule so I could quote it to the person who raised the question, whom we will call Mr. Dunson (not his real name).DSC00986

The books I consulted were Voyages in English 6, The Britannica Book of English Usage, and The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition. I had to resort to books because one of the problems with being a writer is that, if you’re any good at all, you internalize the rules early on. With time, some of the details blur, such as the exact name of a tense (past perfect progressive, anyone?) or the geography of the parallel universe known as the Subjunctive Mood.

You know you’ve written something correctly, but when you have to explain why to a client or a colleague (or Mr. Dunson), it’s tricky to come up with the exact rule. Going online is easy but–and I’m sorry to disillusion you here–not everything you read online is 100% authoritative.

Besides, I paid good $$ for Chicago 15 so I use it every chance I get. (I have no idea where the BBoEU* came from; I’ve had it forever. Voyages in English 6 is a dated sixth-grade language grammar that I rescued from a wastebasket when I was helping a teacher clean out her classroom at the end of the year. It’s stamped “Complimentary Copy” so I suspect it was something she picked up at a convention. I keep it around because it’s a lot easier to navigate than either Chicago or BBoEU.)

For the record, the BBoEU rule regarding nouns in joint possession** is on page 322: Compound nouns and nouns in joint possession show the possessive in the last word only. But if there is individual or separate possession, each noun takes the possessive form.

In Chicago 15, the rule appears under “Particularities of the Possessive” in section 7.24:
Closely linked nouns are considered a single unit in forming the possessive when the entity “possessed” is the same for both; only the second element takes the possessive form. When the entities are different, both nouns take the possessive form.

In other words, Dan and Kate are having just one rehearsal dinner, which they both “possess” and so the apostrophe goes after the second name in the series. (The case could be made that Mr. Dunson and I possess the rehearsal dinner because 1) we’re paying for it and 2) it has yet to be bestowed. But I digress.)

I have so far been unable to find a reference to joint possession, by any name, anywhere in Voyages in English 6. They must have been saving it for the upper grades, along with subjunctive mood. Note to self: find copy of Voyages in English 8.

* Not to be confused with The Big Book of the European Union.                                              ** I bet I’d get a lot more hits on this blog if I added joint possession to the tags.***         *** And I’d draw yet a third crowd if I added unmodified possession.

© 2014 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

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8 Responses to Fun with the Apostrophe

  1. Marcia says:

    Your third paragraph. Totally.


    • Anne Bingham says:

      I actually turned away a client for a book I would have enjoyed editing because it was clear from the initial email that he was going to want an explanation of every single deleted comma, and I could see myself writing “not an appositive phrase” at least once a paragraph. As for having to explain the concept of the serial comma…


  2. mirkabreen says:

    Blessed be the grammarians amongst us, for they will save us from ourselves. I always seemed to forget the explanation behind grammar rules as soon as the test was over.


  3. Joel Habush says:

    Your lengthy research prompted me to say, “Ha, let’s just go to ‘Strunk and White.’” To my utter astonishment, no help there—on any of the four different editions scattered around the office. “Huzzah, I cried, “of, course, Google.” And Google had it for me at the first hit. Many clients don’t know from the “Chicago Manual of Style” (in any edition), or those two other things, but if you say “It’s on Google,” you’re home free. So, I googled “dual possessives,” and struck gold on the first hit.


    • Anne Bingham says:

      “Dual possessives” isn’t nearly as much fun to riff on as “joint possession.” Now we have something else to research: how many names are attached to this particular grammatical structure? And will any of them pick up the tab for Dan and Kate’s rehearsal dinner?


  4. cawinn says:

    These little things come up now and again for me. Recently I see people using Les’s for possessive and know the rules say it should be Les’. But Les’s is what we actually say so I’m wondering with all the changes this is s’s is going to become the norm someday.


    • Anne Bingham says:

      I came across the “possessives for words that end in s” rule while I was looking up dual possession aka joint possession. What you do depends on which style guide you follow. AP (The Associated Press Stylebook 2010, which I didn’t pull out of my bookshelf last week) would say Dickens’ novels, Chicago says Dickens’s. So there you are. Consistency within the ms. is the key, I think.


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