Sir Stirling Rehm (yes, that's what my birth certificate says so hush up)

Greetings, Stirling readers!

Today’s post will focus on an issue that many writers brush aside as kid stuff: possessives! Possessives are important. Why? Because they determine ownership. There’s much more to it than tacking an apostrophe up there and instantly calling that word possessive, however. What about double possessives? Can inanimate objects take a possessive? How do you tell the difference between a possessive noun and an attributive noun?

Luckily, you’ve come to the right schnauzer. Frankly speaking, I’m an expert on this subject. I’ve spent hours and hours debating these tremendously important questions as I’ve pawed through author’s manuscripts. And now, out of the kindness of my heart, I’ve compiled a small reference guide to help you answer some tricky questions and maintain consistency when using possessives.

Problem #1: How to treat double possessives . . . A friend of Stirling or A friend of Stirling’s?

Chicago Manual of Style: 15th Edition, 7.29: “The possessive form may be preceded by of where one of several is implied. ‘A friend of Dick’s and ‘a friend of his’ are equally acceptable.” So, be mindful of what you are implying in your writing and be consistent! Section 5.52 also addresses the use of personal pronouns as possessive. If a double possessive contains a pronoun, “that letter of Sheila’s becomes that letter of hers. Such a construction is unobjectionable with names, and mandatory with pronouns.” Clear us mud, I know. A wonderful book titled Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies: a Guide to Language for Fun and Spite simply tells us that “no amount of cooing or fluttering” will ever settle a solid rule. The experts will never universally agree on this issue.

If you don’t like to read the Chicago of Manual of Style for fun like I do, then I’d say you have problems. No, I joke! . . . But here at Stirling Editing, the CMS is what we usually recommend for our fiction writers to refer too, so you might as well use it. Grammar Girl is another good resource that has much to say on the subject of double possessives, as well as the other problems I’ll be addressing in this post.

Problem #2: Can inanimate objects take a possessive?…The building’s door?

For this, I referred to 7.25 in CMS: “In compound nouns and noun phrases the final element usually takes the possessive form. If plural compounds post problems, opt for of.” CMS lists an example: “A cookbook’s index.” That’s about all CMS had to say that I could find, anyways. Again, it’s important to consider the context of the sentence and what will take ownership. For the sake of clarity and consistency, record what you decide to use on your style sheet and refer back to it often. Keep it fresh in your mind.

Problem #3: What’s the difference between a possessive noun and an attributive noun?…The writers strike or writer’s strike?

CMS, 7.27: “The line between possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively—as an adjective—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employee’s cafeteria sometimes appear without an apostrophe, [CMS] dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) or where there is clearly no possessive meaning.”

Consider the following:

“a consumer’s group, taxpayers’ associations, children’s rights, the women’s team, a boys’ club”

Also consider:

“Publishers Weekly, Diners Club, Department of Veterans Affairs, a housewares sale”

Grammar Girl takes a simple approach that schnauzers the world over prefer greatly to CMS: “If the words are possessive, we need an apostrophe, but if they’re adjectives, we don’t need an apostrophe.” That’s basically what CMS tells us, but Grammar Girl is easier for me to follow, so I often cross reference CMS with her.

However, the issue always leads back to the context of the sentence. Be mindful of nouns as adjectives and other wacky double-meanings. Above all, retain consistency and take the time to think about why you’ve chosen your appropriate style.