Happy National Grammar Day!

The silence in the place of cheers is deafening. Grammar is a boring, regimented set of rules that, like algebra, you had to learn in school and never had to use since.

Except that it’s not as regimented as you think it is, and we do use grammar, every day.

The “rules” of grammar are more like traffic laws, with many of them varying depending on location and conditions. You can turn right on red in Manhattan, KS, for example, but not in Manhattan, NY.

For this week’s nongrammar grammar lesson, let’s take the simple possessive. If a woman owns a house, it’s “her house.” “Her” is the pronoun indicating possession before the noun being possessed.

Now, let’s give “her” a name. Moira owns the house; it’s “Moira’s house.” The way to indicate possession by a noun (as opposed to a pronoun) is to add the “‘s” to it. (We’ve already discussed when that “‘s” becomes just an apostrophe, and other conditions, so let’s not clutter this discussion.)

But Moira owns the house with her husband, Biff. It’s “Biff’s house,” too. So is it “Moira’s and Biff’s house,” with each of them getting a possessive, or is it “Moira and Biff’s house,” with only Biff getting the possessive?

The Associated Press Stylebook has the clearest explanation, and it has nothing to do with sexism:

Use a possessive form after only the last word if ownership is joint: Fred and Sylvia’s apartment, Fred and Sylvia’s stocks.

Use a possessive form after both words if the objects are individually owned: Fred’s and Sylvia’s books.

In other words, the “rule” changes depending on conditions.

Just as it takes some thought to decide whether to file a tax return as joint or individual (or whether it’s safe to make that right turn on red if you’re in Kansas), it’s not always easy to tell whether possession is joint or individual. If two people cleave unto each other, is it “Moira’s and Biff’s lives,” “Moira and Biff’s lives,” “Moira and Biff’s life,” or something else?

Here’s where judgment comes in. Are you thinking of them in this case as each having a life, or as so intertwined that their lives are inseparable for the purposes you are highlighting? That will be your clue: If you want to emphasize the individual, use “Moira’s and Biff’s lives.” if you want your audience to think of them more as a couple, use “Moira and Biff’s life.”

Now let’s throw a little wrench in, by switching back to pronouns. Biff is talking about the house he owns with Moira. Is it “Moira’s and my’s house,” “Moira’s and me’s house,” Moira’s and mine house,” or what?

The cheap way out is to switch their positions: “My and Moira’s house.” (Never “I’s and Moira’s house,” though that has shown up on occasion, as have the other iterations.) But the cheap way is also the easy way to see what you would use: Just because Biff is last, his pronoun doesn’t change, but Moira also retains her possessive: “Moira’s and my house.” She has to keep her apostrophe to avoid the misinterpretation that Biff is talking about two things, “Moira” and “my house,” not one house that they both possess.

Once they’re divorced and live in separate houses, the pronoun still doesn’t change, though the noun does: “Moira’s and my houses.”

Come to think of it, they can stay together and buy another house, and it’s still “Moira’s and my houses.” Guess that’s one benefit of joint possession.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Language Corner

Language Corner

Read More »

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.