John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Puzzling possessives

A few days ago a reader wondered about the construction pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting to. Why apostrophes?

The use of a possessive with a gerund (the present participle of a verb functioning as a noun) is common in English. So is the use of a non-possessive noun. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds that both forms have been examined and faulted or endorsed over a long span — and that it is quite common for an author to switch from one to the other. So of these two possibilities —

I can’t stand his creeping up behind me while I’m working

I can’t stand him creeping up behind me while I’m working

you get to use whichever you like. Another step to reduce usage anxiety!

If the possessive with a gerund makes you step back, you may also be put off momentarily by the double possessive, or double genitive. That is a construction in which possession is indicated twice, by a possessive form and the word of. One refers to a friend of mine rather than a friend of me. (You can also say a friend to me, though it will probably sound stilted to many listeners or readers.)

The construction has an ancient pedigree in English, and Merriam-Webster’s explains its function in reducing ambiguity by distinguishing between an objective genitive and a possessive genitive. Here’s how: Jane’s picture can mean a picture belonging to Jane or a picture of Jane. Saying a picture of Jane’s — the double genitive — distinguishes the former sense from the latter.


  1. I'm always kerphluzzled by plural possessives.

    If Jack and Jill own a pail, I say it's "Jack and Jill's pail."

    But when they give it to Mark and me, I panic. Is it now "Mark and my pail"? "Mark's and my pail"?

    I usually just end up regifting the item before somebody makes me describe it in writing.

  2. The double possessive also lets you add other determiners - that old friend of Jack's, an old friend of Jack's: both are different from Jack's old friend.

    I think I'd say "my and Mark's pail" - or even "our pail, Mark and me" :-)

  3. Plural possessives have always been a tricky subject whenever I'm discussing grammar with folks in my writing group, as is the construction of possessives with gerunds - not to mention the mere reference to gerunds in the first place.

    Thanks for the refresher.

    PS - I wish I could get my family to read my blog :-)