An awful and otherworldly use of the possessive form


I THOUGHT there was something awful and otherworldly in this headline of a recent news story: “Pregnant pastor’s wife shot, killed in home invasion in Indianapolis.” The picture it created in my mind was that of a pregnant church minister grieving over the body of his slain wife, but then it struck me as highly improbable that the pastor—he should be male according to church tradition—was one heavy with child.

As it turned out, neither gender role inversion nor violation of the natural order of things was involved in that tragic incident. It was actually the pastor’s slain wife who was pregnant, but the headline writer had messed up his grammar in applying the possessive apostrophe-“s.” That headline should have read “Pastor’s pregnant wife shot, killed in home invasion in Indianapolis,” which was the concise form of the lead sentence of that news story, “The pregnant wife of an Indianapolis pastor was shot and killed this week in what police are calling a home invasion.”

To avoid such an appalling error in handling the possessives, let’s do a quick review of the possessive form in English.

Recall that the general rule in forming the possessive is simply (a) to add an “apostrophe-s” to a singular noun if it does not end in the letter “s,” and (b) to just add an apostrophe if the noun is in the plural form or already ends in “s.” Some examples: “Eduardo’s talent,” “The girls’ suggestion,” “Charles’ project,” and “Maritess’ essay.”
However, some grammarians recommend adding the apostrophe-“s” consistently even to singular nouns that end in “s,” so that “Charles’ project” becomes “Charles’s project,” and “Maritess’ essay” becomes “Maritess’s essay.” It’s a perfectly valid option, but it could be messy when it results in triple “s” endings as in “Maritess’s,” so I personally avoid it.

To form the possessive when the noun does not end in “s” but is also plural, like the irregular plurals “women,” “children,” “media,” “oxen,” and “bacteria,” we simply append “apostrophe-s” to the nouns as if they were singular, as in “Awareness of women’s rights is growing in many parts of the world.” Then, when there’s joint possession by two nouns, recall that the rule is to let the possessive nearest the noun possessed carry the possessive, as in “Romeo and Juliet’s passion for each other sealed their tragic fate.”

We are also well-advised to refrain from using apostrophe-“s” possessives with inanimate objects, particularly in relation to their component parts. Although not grammatically wrong, it gives the feeling that something about the language is being violated in such possessive constructions as “the table’s top,” “the lamp’s bulb,” “the car’s tires,” and “the window’s panes.” Better to knock off the apostrophe-“s” possessives altogether: “the table top,” “the lamp bulb,” “the car tires,” and “the window panes.”

But to get back to that ghastly headline, what happens when both the entity that takes the possessive apostrophe-“s” form and the entity possessed are noun phrases? Take as an example the subject of the statement “The dismal performance last year of the transport planning officer has been severely criticized.”That subject can be rendered in the concise possessive form “the transport planning officer’s dismal performance last year,” where the noun phrase “the transport planning officer’s” is the possessor and the noun phrase “dismal performance last year” is the possessed entity. In doing so, however, utmost care should be taken not to disturb or transpose the modifiers of the noun phrases. It will be disastrous, for instance, to render the possessive of that noun phrase as “the dismal transport planning officer’s performance last year.”

They may be just copyediting errors, but this does not obviate the outrage that headlines like “Pregnant pastor’s wife shot, killed in home invasion in Indianapolis” inflicts on readers’ sensibilities.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at @J8Carillo. E-mail:


Please follow our commenting guidelines.

Comments are closed.