November 21, 2006


I can see how this happened, but the result looks odd indeed:

Then there are families like R.’s and his partner’s’ that from the outset seek to create a sort of extended nuclear family... ("Gay Donor or Gay Dad", by John Bowe, New York Times Magazine 11/20/06. p. 69)

Let's take this step by step.  First, we want families like X, where X is an independent possessive (one lacking a nominal head).  For personal pronouns, there are special forms for the independent possessive -- mine in families like mine -- while for other NPs the independent possessive is identical to the determinative possessive (which is in construction with a following nominal head), for which the default form is pronounced with a final Z (with three variants, according to phonetic context), spelled with final ’s; that gives us things like families like George’s, families like my best friend’s, families like my friend from Chicago’s.

Ok, now we want the X in families like X to refer to the family comprising R. and his partner, so we need the possessive of R. and his partner, and that would be, following what I just said, R. and his partner’s: there are families like R. and his partner's that...  This is fine, but it doesn't sound quite right to some people, because it seems to coordinate R. (non-possessive) with his partner's (possessive), which looks like a failure of parallelism.  How to fix that?  Make the first conjunct possessive as well.

(Notice that warnings against non-parallel coordination might have played a role in the development of these "distributed" possessives.  Proscriptions and prescriptions can have all sorts of side effects.)

Now we have families like R.’s and his partner’s, with possessiveness distributed across the two conjuncts.  This is also fine, though it might be understood as meaning "families like R.’s family and families like his partner’s family", referring to two families rather than one.  That is, for people who can distribute possessives, the resulting expressions are systematically ambiguous between reference to one thing (the distributed possessive) and two (coordination of ordinary possessives).  This is not the end of the world; as listeners and readers, we use context, background information, and reasoning about what is plausible to discern intended meanings, and we do this all the time, with enormous speed and (usually) considerable accuracy.  (I believe that I am not inclined to distribute possessives, but I'm not about to try to stop other people from doing it, and I have no trouble figuring out what they mean when they do it.)

So far we have two versions of the independent possessive: families like R. and his partner’s and families like R.’s and his partner’s.  This would be a good moment to quit hassling the possessive and go on with the rest of the sentence, but, alas, Bowe — or an editor — chose to think some more about families like R.’s and his partner’s.  Here's the problem: R.’s and his partner’s looks like a simple coordination of two possessives.  But we want to mark possessiveness on an entire expression referring to R. and his partner as a pair.  So we need a mark of possessiveness at the end of the whole expression R’s and his partner’s.  This is where the reasoning runs off the tracks -- possessiveness is already adequately, perhaps more than adequately, marked -- but let's press on.

[Addendum later: well, maybe we shouldn't.  Daniel Ezra Johnson notes that the final apostrophe has disappeared in the on-line version of the story (I just checked, and he's right), which suggests that the whole thing might have been a cut'n'paste error.  I still have some useful things to say, but the original point is somewhat blunted.]

How would we indicate possessiveness at the end of R.’s and his partner’s?  Up above, I gave the default scheme, involving Z or 's, but there's a special case, for expressions in which the last word already has a Z suffix.  This happens most frequently when the last word is a regular plural of a noun, as in the NPs the birds and my friends: the birds’ wings, my friends’ advice (cf. my children’s advice).  This word does not have to be the head of the NP: The advice of my friends’ [not friends’s] being so helpful, I decided to...  In any case, the possessive suffix is suppressed in speech, its presence indicated in spelling by a final apostrophe.

The possessive suffix is suppressed not only by a plural Z suffix, but by other Z suffixes as well.  In particular, it's suppressed by another POSSESSIVE suffix.  It takes a little work, but you can devise examples in which two possessive suffixes would be expected but only one surfaces.  (By the way, none of the observations about English I'm making here are novel; they've been around for some time.)

Background: independent possessives occur in at least four constructions:

Anaphoric zero:  Kim’ essay was long, but mine/Sandy’s was even longer.

Predicative:  That book is mine/Sandy’s.

Double genitive:  friends of mine/Sandy’s

Locative:  Let's meet at Sandy’s.  = "Let's meet at Sandy's place/house."

These can be mixed with one another or with a determinative possessive.  I'll illustrate a few of the possibilities with double genitives:

Double genitive inside determinative:  Let's meet at that friend of Sandy's/*Sandy’s’s place.

Double genitive inside anaphoric zero:  Kim’s essay was long, but a friend of Sandy’s/*Sandy’s’s was even longer.

Double genitive inside locative:  Let's meet at that friend of Sandy's/*Sandy's's.

Now, the handbooks don't even contemplate such examples, so they don't tell you how to punctuate them.  I've chosen to minimize the number of punctuation marks, using ’s to stand for two possessive suffixes.  You could make a case for ’s’, extending the orthographic marking of a suppressed Z from the paradigm examples: Let's meet at that friend of Sandy’s’ place.  It looks ugly to me, but at least it's consistent.  This is in fact the spelling in the Times example we started with.  The spelling would be defensible, but the problem with the families of R.’s and his partner’s’ is not the orthography, but the signalling of an entirely spurious possessive suffix at the end of the independent possessive.

While we're on the subject of Astounding Possessives, let me mention two problematic cases that John Singler and I and our students at NYU and Stanford, respectively, have been looking at over the years: the Coordinated Pronoun Problem and the You Guys Problem.

The Coordinated Pronoun Problem.  Suppose you are a married man, and you want to talk about the problems that you and your wife have been having; you want to talk about X problems, where X is a possessive expression referring to your wife and you as a couple.  What you get off the shelf (see discussion above) is: my wife and I’s problems.  A lot of people recoil from this (and similar examples with other personal pronouns as a second conjunct); the I’s sounds just wrong.  The easy solution is to distribute the possessive (again, see discussion above): my wife’s and my problems.  This risks losing the sense of your wife and you as a unit, a couple.  So you might be moved to combine the virtues of the ordinary possessive and the distributed possessive.

A number of people have stretched English grammar in search of a solution.  (Sightings of these non-standard variants go back at least to a 10/16/91 posting to the Linguist List by Steve Harlow.)  Such a solution will have a possessive 's at the end of X, as in the ordinary possessive, but it will avoid the ugly I’s, in favor of something less ugly — for instance, my’s, using the my from the distributed possessive: my wife and my’s problems.  (The parallel for the Times example would be families like R. and his partner’s’.)  Singler and I have collected examples, and you can google some up — 21 webhits for my wife and my’s -- though people have tried a variety of other solutions, covering all the morphological possibilities: my wife and me’s (2 hits), my wife and myself’s (35), my wife’s and mine’s (47).  (In contrast, I get 11,000 hits for my wife and I’s and 29,300 for my wife’s and my, though maybe half of the latter are irrelevant.)

Yet another solution is the exact parallel to the Times example: distributed possessives plus final ’s, that is, my wife’s and my’s problems.  Again, Singler and I have some examples, but this time Google is not our friend: no webhits for my wife’s and my’s or my wife’s and me’s, two for my wife’s and mine’s, 13 for my wife’s and myself’s.

[Addendum: Aaron Dinkin points out yet another resolution: my wife and my problems (for 'the problems of my wife and me').  It's hard to tell how common this one is, since you can really search for examples only with a head noun supplied.  But there are at least a few examples out there.]

The You Guys Problem.  The combination of a plural personal pronoun (you, we, or us) with a plural noun presents a puzzle in syntactic analysis: is the pronoun a determiner modifying the noun as head; or is the pronoun the head, with the following noun in apposition to it; or are they co-heads, in a kind of copulative compound?  Might different speakers have different analyses?  Might some speakers have more than one analysis?  Syntacticians have puzzled over these questions for years.  For the first person plural pronouns, the topic is especially vexed, since prescriptions about pronoun case interfere with attempts to collect judgments.

For one particular instance of this combination, the very frequent informal you guys, speakers exhibit much more variation in their choice of possessive forms than for others, in ways that suggest that they see the combination as having two equal parts AND that they treat the whole thing as an expression that doesn't necessarily involve an ordinary plural noun guys

First, the off-she-shelf possessive would be you guys’, as in you guys’ ideas.  A lot of people shrink back from that; I myself am not particularly comfortable with it.  One pretty common alternative distributes the possessive: your guys’, as in your guys’ ideas = "the ideas that you guys have".  I collected my first examples at the 2005 Berkeley Linguistics Society meeting, where one commenter on a paper referred repeatedly to your guys’ analysis.  A little while later I heard Barry Bonds use this possessive (referring to the reporters at a press conference), then found piles of examples on the net, and collected some more examples from the speech of graduate students and colleagues.

An alternative is to treat you guys as an expression that just happens to end in /z/.  Then the off-the-shelf possessive would be you guys’s, and Singler and his students have plenty of instances.  About 11,700 Google webhits, which certainly isn't chopped liver.

Finally, you can do both at once: your guys’s.  Some informants report preferring this to the singly marked you guys’s, and it gets a lot of webhits (about 26,500), though many of these are probably references to the line "Could I use your guys’s phone for a sec?" in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite.

In more formal speech and writing, of course, you don't use you guys at all, just you, an alternative that is also available in informal speech and writing, but at the risk of ambiguity between singular and plural.  In many cases, this ambiguity is actually troublesome, so you guys is a good thing to have, especially if you speak a dialect that lacks a distinguished plural like y’all.  Once you have it, though, you're stuck with finding a possessive form for it.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 21, 2006 02:43 PM