Plural possessives are tricky

When I saw “men’s’ clothing” with two apostrophes, I figured it must be a typo. I was editing a professional writer who’s been on the job for years, and I know from experience that writers make typos, but none — none of them — think that two apostrophes go in “men’s’ clothing.”

But then I saw “women’s’ clothing,” with two apostrophes. Then “children’s’ clothing.”
That’s when I knew that what I was witnessing was not a single accidental strike of an apostrophe key. Instead, it was the weirdest take on plural possessives I’ve ever seen.

Most writers, in my experience, stumble on plural possessives — even writers who have no problem with singular possessives or plurals that aren’t possessive.
They understand that the tail of a dog is the dog’s tail, singular possessive. And they understand that when one dog joins another dog, you have two dogs, plural, not possessive. But when they have to apply both those rules to the same word, they start to lose their grasp on them.

For regular nouns like “dog,” making the plural possessive isn’t tough. Many get it right: “the dogs’ tails,” with the plural S followed by the possessive apostrophe. But nouns with irregular plurals, like “man,” “woman” and “child” trip them up. Throw in some confusing expressions like “each other,” and almost everyone loses their grasp on how to use apostrophes: childrens’? childrens? childs’? They’re not sure.

So what’s the trick to writing plural possessives correctly? Just remember these basic rules and don’t get frazzled. To make a plural noun that ends in S possessive, add an apostrophe: kids’ clothes. If you want to make possessive a plural irregular noun that does not end in S, like children, add both an apostrophe and also an S: children’s clothes.

It’s easy. Or it should be. But plural possessives get confusing because the letter S has too many jobs in English and they all get jumbled in our heads.
In English, S is used to form plurals. To talk about more than one dog, you add S: dogs.

S also forms possessives of nouns: the cat’s pajamas.

S is also used for verb conjugations. For the verb “let,” for instance, the third-person form is “lets”: he lets the cat out.

S also stands in for not one but several different words in contractions, where it adds an extra layer of confusion by pairing with an apostrophe. “It’s raining” means “It is raining,” with the letter S serving as an abbreviated form of “is.” But in “Who’s been sleeping in my bed,” the S stands for “has.” And in “Let’s eat,” the S represents the word “us,” which is hard to remember because no one says, “let us eat.”
Then come even more curveballs. You can read about them here in my recent column.

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One Response to “Plural possessives are tricky”

  1. The way you have explained the plural possessives in a simple trick is outstanding and clears up the confusion. I believe it will be beneficial for writers as well as for those who are into editing.