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Last time, I highlighted the advantages of the so-called “Saxon genitive” or Possessive S structure in English. A phrase like “Mary’s plan” requires one word less than the equivalent “the plan of Mary” and if you’ve ever had to write a presentation slide or a tweet with a fixed word limit, you’ll know how useful these little savings can be.

Adding S to S

There are, of course, come problems. The first arrives when the plan was drawn up by Mary’s colleague Mavis, whose name already ends with an ‘s’. English is quite generous here and lets you choose: you can add possessive S as usual (“Mavis’s bag”) or you can just put an elegant little apostrophe on its own (“Mavis’ bag”), which is my preference. In both cases, you have to pronounce the extra ‘s’ when speaking as an “iz” sound (MEI-vis-iz bag).

If the possessor ends in ‘s’ because it’s plural (most businesses are owned by various shareholders, for example), you’re not allowed any more ‘s’s even if you’re feeling extravagant. Just add an apostrophe (“shareholders’ dividends”) and don’t change the pronunciation in any way (no phantom “iz”).

Pile-Ups: Caesar’s Armies’ Dogs?

The next issue is more stylistic. Last time, we accepted that Caesar is allowed to say “Caesar’s armies”, with a possessive S, because he’s responsible for his armies, but what if Caesar’s armies own dogs? This gives you a double possessive, “Caesar’s armies’ dogs”, which is just about acceptable in English. You’ll hear it used to refer to people like “Peter’s friend’s mum”, but it forces the listener to think a bit and it’s not great style. It’s better just to add possessive S to the last owner and use prepositions (usually OF) for the rest, so: “the dogs OF Caesar’s armies”. The same thing applies when you need a long phrase to identify the owner. “…the parents of the child who is currently urinating in the lobby” sounds (slightly) better than “…the child who is currently urinating in the lobby’s parents”.

Using Nouns as Adjectives

Finally, the most likely alternative to possessive S is a so-called “noun combination” (like “car window”). They’re hyper-efficient and great to cut your wordcount, but you need to know how and when to form them, and that will be the topic of my next blog.

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