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Compound possession: Whose is what?

by Shamus Jarvis

When dealing with a compound subject (two or more nouns or pronouns serving as a single subject of a sentence), a writer must know how to clearly signal to the reader who possesses what. This is due to the fact that it can be confusing knowing how to express whether one or more parties within the subject share ownership of an object or experience.

For example, look at the following two sentences:

  • Bob and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.
  • Bob’s and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.

In the first sentence, the fact that only the second proper noun (Jane) is written as a possessive—indicated by the apostrophe—signifies that the children belong to both Bob and Jane. In sentence two, both proper nouns are written in the possessive form, indicating that Bob’s children are different from Jane’s children.

This shows that when all parties within the compound subject of a sentence share possession, only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form. If the parties within the compound subject do not share ownership, then each noun or pronoun should be written as a possessive.

If the compound subject contains a noun and a personal pronoun, both must be written in the possessive form in order to signify joint ownership.

Examples:

  • Sarah’s and my boss went to Florida.
  • Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

When the proper noun and personal pronoun appear in the possessive form, the sentence states, the boss of Sarah and myself went to Florida. When only the pronoun is written as a possessive, the meaning of the sentence changes to read, both Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

As compound possession comes up in your writing, ask yourself, “Do the parties within the compound subject share ownership, or do they own the object(s) independently of each other?” If there is joint ownership, then only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form; otherwise all nouns should appear as possessives.

 

Exit SHAMUS, upstage center.

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