Grammar Wednesday


Look, I’ve got a lot of real life friends and Blogging Buddies who teach in public schools, and I want you all to know that I don’t hold any of you personally responsible, but I want to know this: how is it that a 20-year-old makes it to college without knowing how to make plural possessives?!

My plan for this term is to to give my Comp. students spot-checks once a week to see if I can get a baseline for where most of them are in terms of grammar. I want to offer up lessons on the stuff that the greater portion of the class bombs, rather than doing a blanket attack on stuff they may already have. I gave the class one of these little quizes on Monday to see how well they can form the possessive form of nouns.

Can you tell from my build-up that it did not go so well?

I had one student who scored a 5. Yes, that’s right – a 5. I also had a 15 and a couple of 30s, though I also had two perfect scores. Everyone else fell somewhere in the middle.

A singular noun is generally made possessive by adding an apostrophe – s:

my mother’s car

the government’s policies

Alicia’s artwork

All of these things belong to one person or entity – the car is only owned by my mother, we’re discussing the policies of a particular government, the artwork was created (or owned, it’s not quite clear) only by Alicia.

Conveying that something or somethings are owned jointly by more than one person or organization is a bit more work. First, one must make the noun plural in whatever way that happens – by adding s, es, or changing an irregular noun:

mothers children families friends houses

Then, depending on the ending of the noun, we add either an apostrophe OR an apostrophe-s:

the mothers’ group

six children’s coats

the families’ common yard

a dozen friends’ phone numbers

the neighborhood houses’ value

There will be a lesson – and another quiz – in my class on Monday. I’m sad for these kids that they made it all the way to me without understanding this…



Filed under concerns, frustrations, General Griping, Grammar, Yikes!

17 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. This has been plaguing my fanfic reading recently as well and I have been in awe that people whose blogs tell me they have jobs and kids and pets and responsibilities are doing this wrong. It’s killing me!

  2. Back online and catching up here! I actually have an unrelated question, which I thought of after reading a post you wrote (much farther down– oops, should that be “further”?) where you tell your students not to use personal pronouns in research papers.

    I am doing a degree in Spain, and here it’s very common in academic writing to use the first person plural, even if the paper is written by only one person. This strikes me as quite odd. Maybe I’m overly-accustomed to our convention of using the passive voice or other constructions to avoid personal pronouns in academic writing, but still…

    Anyway, my question is, is this done at all in academic writing in English? My undergrad degree was in Creative Writing and Spanish, and I didn’t actually have to read a lot of real academic research of the kind I’m doing now.

    Sorry for hijacking your comments like this– I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been meaning to ask someone this question for awhile and your post reminded me…

  3. Kate, you’re not hijacking at all; I LOVE fielding questions, even if they’re not about the post topic!

    I have never heard of using the third person plural (we) for academic writing; all of my experience as been that the third person formal (one) is used – if pronouns have to be used at all.

    We also tend to avoid the passive voice in English, though it shows up a lot more in formal and technical writing than I think most English teachers would like. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the passive voice in certain circumstances, though it can get tedious if it’s overused.

  4. Do you know that no matter how many times I teach this, and how many ways I explain it, about half of each class will NOT get it…EVER! It’s not difficult!

  5. My second grader is working on just this skill, so I KNOW it’s being taught early on. May be a case of leading horses to water…
    To add to the hijacker (ha ha), I think it’s odd to use personal pronouns in academic writing as well.

  6. (minor thing, but i think you meant to say, “A singular noun is generally made *possessive* by adding…” just thought you might like to correct a typo.)

  7. Kim

    Would you believe that even huge corporations have problems with this!? Eating a scrumptious meal in an upscale chain restaurant one spring I came across an error much like this one. “Don’t know what to get your mother’s for Mothers’ Day? Bring her T**** J**’s.” They pay their advertising agencies and printers how much?

  8. Laurie B

    OK, I’m probably just as bad as your students at the ” ‘s ” things. I try to find other ways around the whole mess. I take criticism well, so please, correct anything in my writings anywhere you find them. Thank you all.

    I live with the BEW who insists on proper grammar and proper citations in papers that are due in her courses. She will read the draft, mark the corrections in purple ink (red ink makes the paper look bloody after all). All the student has to do is make the corrections and re-submit the darned paper. It can add a two grade difference to the final grade! The students know this from the beginning of the course. You’d think they would make the corrections. Err, not so much. They then loose points for the course and the world gets one more student that will mow your lawn every week. If the student had done the work, and made the corrections, said student would perhaps own the lawn care company. That is the difference.

    I do think that it is time for the gum’mint to stop deciding what “the test” is testing and that the one through six grade teachers are allowed to go back to teaching cursive writing, all twenty-seven tenses of a verb, some creative writing and even be the models of responsible societal behavior that they are. The kids (and society as we know it) are needing that.

    BEW (and I will get her to post here someday) is making up for the lost years of education. She requires that her senior level students write well and clearly, are able to present a power point thing that isn’t dreadful, and otherwise handle themselves well in a public setting. This, on top of the final semester of professional education in their field.

    How in the world have the students managed to get this far without being able to communicate their thoughts on paper, or perhaps, in any form?

    Arrgh! You teachers have got a tough row to hoe.

    Sorry it was a little long in the rant, but the fervor was there. I lurve living with a teacher.

  9. He he. I gave my students a test today, too. It was the first day of class. They HATE me. Evil perfesser.

  10. Hey, thanks for getting back to me on this! I think one of the reasons it (use of first person plural in academic work) seems so odd to me is that most of the time, no pronouns seem to be necessary at all. It seems like the author is calling undue attention to him/herself, as in, “This is my work/ideas/etc.– don’t you forget it!” I guess I understand that in academic writing you are supposed to contribute something new, not merely give a straight report on what others have already said, but still, I think it’s possible to provide a new point of view or interpretation without actually marking it as such with personal pronouns.

    And now, back to the paper I’m trying to crank out!

  11. Kizz, I know, and I’m sorry. You need to resume sending me some of the more heinous fanfic errors, though, so I have a good stock of Grammar Wednesday fodder…

    Tense, I’m convinced it’s about practice – and about teachers in ALL fields (not just English) INSISTING that students get this stuff right. Eventually and for most students, it’ll click.

    Lara, thanks for having my back. That IS what I meant, and I fixed it.

    Kim, don’t even GO there with me and the damned advertisers. It makes me absolutely crazy that advertisers get away with crap like that – and that they get paid big money, to boot. Did you hear about my crusade with Or General Mills cereals? I’m TOTALLY tilting at windmills, though; I keep getting terse little “advertisement often bends the rules of grammar” letters in response to my complaints.

    Laurie B, I think it’s important that some of us stand up and require that conventions be learned and utilized. I know that my linguist buddies will likely take issue with me here, but I still contend that there are a lot of rules that make communication possible. Putting the apostrophe in the wrong place can change the meaning of the sentence, and it’s important for students to know how to communicate well and clearly. Please tell BEW (what does that stand for, anyway?) that she is my Sister at Arms.

    Seester, if they think I’m an evil perfesser, I’m ok with that. I can work that to my advantage…. (insert evil laughter and hand-rubbing here).

    Kate, my advice? Dispense with the pronouns altogether. The fact that you’re writing is alone enough to convey that the ideas and opinions are yours, I think, and your paper will stand out among the other, pronoun-laden ones as the more professional and academic sounding. Good luck!

  12. Laurie B

    Hi mrschili,

    BEW? She’s my Blue Eyed Wonder!
    Lucky me!

  13. There’s a lot of variation in how we use the apostrophe. There are many places where it is used to mark the plural:
    DVD’s, 1970’s, do’s and dont’s
    These uses are considered standard by the Oxford Companion to the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

    And there are places where it’s not used to mark possession:
    Harrods, Barclays, its, his

    It’s not always used with nouns that end in /s/ or /z/:
    for convenience’ sake

    Obviously it can benefit students to learn what the modern conventions are. But it’s also worth knowing that the conventions include variation, and are not internally consistent. I wouldn’t say that punctuation “makes communication possible” – the apostrophe was borrowed from French in the 15th or 16th century, and we managed to communicate before that. In some cases the apostrophe eliminates ambiguity, but not always. For instance “man’s” means both “man is” and “of man”. Why don’t we have a way of distinguishing these two? The apostrophe’s not doing its job of facilitating communication!

  14. I find it funny that your college students have problems with this. I really thought this was basic knowledge. I do notice that my students are really sloppy with language nowadays. They write a paper or a test as if they’re in a chat session. I don’t know when we have let this happen.

  15. Haiku just for you, Mrs. Chili:


    Plural possessives
    Show that one object has more
    Than just one owner.


  16. I remember having a discussion in college about a similar topic: the use of (‘s) on singular nouns that end in “s.”

    A professor of mine said, use (‘s) when you pronounce it. For example, “Tess’s.” You actually say /tesiz/. Unlike a lot of the plural possessives, like “cats’ ” you don’t say /katsiz/. Well, most of us don’t.

    Both my current and former employer had apostrophe issues. I just left the State Employees Credit Union. We were not the State Employees’ Credit Union. Although some did disagree. Now I work for Compass Bank. I really hate to write things like Compass’ for posessive since we all say /kumpasiz/.

  17. drtombibey


    At least for the males that age they are about three quarters testosterone poisoned. I count not paying enough attention in High School English as one of my major errors in life. Had it not been for my dear mother’s proper use of English at home I’d never made it.

    -Dr. B

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