Grammar Wednesday

Another question offered by Dudley!  He’s really getting into this!

Mrs. Chili,

This one is a serious question.  It’s not a beef.  It has to do with titles like Attorney General, or Mother In Law.  If we have more that one, it’s Attorneys General or Mothers In Law; HOWEVER, how to we write the possessive?

Is it the Attorney General’s briefcase or is it the Attorney’s General briefcase?

If we’re only talking about ONE Attorney General, then it would be “the Attorney General’s briefcase.”  If there’s more than one, though- if they ALL forgot their luggage in the board room – then we’d say
the Attorneys General’s briefcases.”

The same rule would apply if there were a convention of, say, mothers-in-law and they all, like my mother-in-law is prone to do, walked out of the banquet hall with their napkins tucked into their belts.  “The mothers-in-law’s napkins were reported as stolen by the kitchen staff.”

This form of possessive is so rare, though, as to almost never get used.



Filed under Grammar

5 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Pretty much.

    The possessive in English is syntactically interesting (though not quite as interesting as the phenomenon of affix hopping, but that’s for another Wednesday), as it’s not actually considered a suffix, but a clitic.

    A clitic is a morpheme that straddles the divide between word and affix. It usually has enough meaning associated with it to become its own word, but it is phonologically bound to some other segment. In this case, the other segment is the preceding noun phrase. This makes the English possessive an enclitic, as opposed to a proclitic.

    We know it attaches at the level of the phrase, because we say thing’s like ‘the Queen of England’s car’, which refers to the car that belongs to the Queen of England, as opposed to referring to the monarch in charge of a car belonging to England. It parses like this:
    [the Queen of England]’s car

    There are other good syntactic tests for this, and plenty of ramifications. In fact I think the English possessive has lead to the discovery of determiner phrases. In the example above, what is the purpose of the phrase ‘the Queen of England’? It serves to determine which car is being referred to. So, in fact the entire phrase “the Queen of England’s” including the possessive clitic, is a determiner phrase, easily substituted by another determiner phrase, like ‘the’, or ‘her’.

  2. After ONCE AGAIN assuring my students that I WILL count off if they use the incorrect form of “it’s” in a written response, I just want to say: God bless you, Mrs. Chili. You are my heroine because you fight the good fight and make me feel less alone in the world of grammar deafness.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Laurie B

    Same question, is the back seat of my car a shit heap or a shits heap? Doesn’t really matter to me. I won’t litter and it’s all my shit, so to speak.

  4. Charles

    I have been suffering from this problem for days. My issue is that in the plural possessive of Attorney General, the two conflicting rationales collide (that the adjective apparently can be possessive, but not plural). The issue of course rests with the ever-elusive clitic. I humbly suggest that we identify clitics by surrounding them with the brackets. These symbols have no real use other than email addresses and code programming and should be introduced to avoid the metaphysical disaster involved when dueling grammar rationales meet and conflict.

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