Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Possessive Problem - A Guest Post by Peg Herring

Thanks, Peg for letting another Peg visit your blog!

Yesterday’s post, “Portmanteau Words”, is up at

The Possessive Problem

How did The Possessive Problem arise? Probably, the Congress, Parliament, or Whatever of Language got together to make decisions on the English language. I imagine that it went something like this.

His Honor, Lord Pedant: (After much clearing of the throat and bowing) Gentlemen, we are here to decide on a better way of showing ownership. This phrasing, “The pants of Peter” is too cumbersome.

Sir Sycophant: Hear, hear! Just so!

The Earl of Reason: I have heard in the general populace that they simply put the owner’s name before the item, Your Worship: Peter pants.

Baron Bore: (Pounding the table) Ridiculous! Who ever heard of such a thing? The people know NOTHING! Peter pants? Bah! It sounds like a fairy boy, flitting in some land where one never grows up.

Sycophant: Hear, hear! Ridiculous!

Reason: I suppose an additional sound might be added to indicate that the noun has become a modifier.

Lord Confused: (Waking from a short nap) What? What did he say? What, pray, is a modifier?

Reason: A modifier is a word that—

Pedant: Don’t try to explain, Reason. It will only make him worse. (Shouting) We’ll fix it, Connie!

Confused: All right, then. (Drifts back to sleep.)

Pedant: So we put something on the word to show that it indicates possession. I suggest an “s”.

Reason: Oh, Your Worship. I don’t think that is a good idea. We’ve already used the “s” for plurals.

Pedant: All the more reason to use it again. Get some value out of it, what?

Sycophant: Hear, hear! Put it to work, I say.

Reason: But people won’t know a plural from a possessive!

Bore: Then we’ll add something to it. How about an apostrophe?

Sycophant: Just so! An apostrophe!

Reason: But we’ve got apostrophes in contractions already. How will they know the difference?

Bore: Let ’em work it out. Lazy buggers need something to do.

Sycophant: Brilliant! Give the lazy buggers a real test, eh, what?

Pedant: (Making notes on his parchment scroll) Here’s how I envision it. If a word is singular, we’ll add an apostrophe and an “s”
to show ownership. If it’s plural, we’ll put the apostrophe after the “s”.

Confused: (Waking with a snort) What if the word already ends in “s”?

Pedant: (A little cranky) They’ll have to work it out for themselves, won’t they?

Reason: I must say, this system is unworkable, but let’s make it as simple as possible. (Considers) Take our original example, “the pants of Peter”. There is no “s” on the last word, so one would add an apostrophe and an “s” to make it “Peter’s pants”. If it were “the pants of the soldiers”, the “s” is already there, so when we move the modifier, we would add only an apostrophe: “the soldiers’ pants”. By taking the possessive word and putting it behind the word it modifies, one can tell where the apostrophe goes.

Confused: And if the word already ends in “s”?

Reason: Follow the rule. It is simple and effective.

Pedant: It doesn’t work! What about “the soldiers ran” or “the rats nibbled”?

Sycophant: There, you see? It doesn’t work. I said it wouldn’t.

Reason: If one cannot make the phrase reverse, then there is no possessive and we need no apostrophe. “The ran of the soldiers” makes no sense, so it is not possessive. But “the time of two hours” or “the cry of the babies”—you see? (Sighs) That’s as simple as I can make it, given what the committee proposes.

Bore: Simplicity is not our goal, Reason! Rules must perplex people so that we can be their guides and advisers. Your proposals make things too easy, and Sir, you disgust me. A man of the people! Bah!

Reason: That would be “the people’s man”, Your Lordship, using our new system. And thank you. I consider it a compliment.

The Poser: Name a series/novel where the sleuth is a senior citizen.

The Prizes:Weekly prizes (your choice of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY in e- or print format) drawn from the names of those who comment on the blogs as we go. Comment once/day, but the first commenter each day gets entered twice in Saturday’s drawing!

The Pitch: THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, First in The Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery. Tori Van Camp wakes in a stateroom on a cruise ship with no memory of booking a cruise, but she does have a vivid recollection of being shot in the chest. Determined to find out what happened and why, Tori enlists the help of an odd detective named Seamus. Together they embark on an investigation like nothing she’s ever experienced. Death is all around her, and unless they act quickly, two people she cares about are prime candidates for murder. Read more about this book and the author at or buy the book at

The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to great reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.

The Pathway: The next entry , “Read It Aloud” and the answers/comments to the Poser will be up at


  1. Amusing!

    -Theresa de Valence

  2. Senior sleuths:

    Andrew Basnett - E X Ferrars

    Webster Flagg - Veronica Johns

    Truman Kicklighter - Kathy Trocheck

    Trixie Dolan & Eve Sinclair - Marian Babson

    Tish McWhinney - Barbara Comfort

    Poppy Dillwoth - Dorothy Tell

    Sister Mary Helen - Carol O'Marie

    Duff MacDougal - Charlotte Armstrong

    Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins - Carolyn hart

    Dewey James - Kate Morgan

    Cat Caliban - D B Borton

  3. Delightful, Peg! But I'm afraid you'll have to relocate the whole thing to France, since English has always just grown like Topsy and never been adjudicated. The French, however, actually do legislate about such things. Oh, but then, the French still do say "the pants of Peter" In a manner of speaking.

  4. Very clever--I chuckled at it. I must be a nutcase because I like the rules. It makes reading so much easier.

  5. I agree with Ellis, but that's because I'm a recovering English teacher.
    I agree with Donna, because I, too, know "la plume de ma tante".
    I admire P.J., because she knows more about mysteries and mystery authors than I ever will.
    And I appreciate that somebody thinks I'm funny, at least some of the time.

  6. Peg, thank you for being such a delightful guest, and bringing both light and humor to grammar. You rock!