The Disappearing S Possessive and the Spl-it Infinitive

September 27, 2017

Both have been in the new recently (between North Korea and Boris) but what are infinitives and when is the possessive s not included after the apostrophe? And should we care?


According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries' website, it’s debatable whether split infinitives are bad grammar and we shouldn’t worry about them, unless writing formally. That seems good advice. Whilst you may want to really impress a prospective employer, sticking ‘really’ between ‘to’ and ‘impress’ could do the opposite because that’s a split infinitive and he or she could be fussy about such things. But as a writer, if it works dramatically, if it conveys mood or character, why not.


Spotting them is easy. Infinitives are simple verbs like to be, to run, to go, to talk, to tell, to jump and so on. They’re split when you stick a word between the ‘to’ and the verb. To avoid splitting them, remember to studiously avoid doing it. And yes, my ‘studiously’ split the infinitive, ‘to avoid’.


There’s no debate about the possessive apostrophe s rule. Getting it wrong is bad grammar. Luckily it’s straightforward (almost). The s is included unless the word has a plural s ending. So, if Martha and Doris had a mole, we would write Martha’s and Doris’s mole. If there were several Marthas and Dorises with moles, the possessive s would be omitted, making it Marthas’ and Dorises’ moles. Easy peasy. (Harder is figuring out if these moles are blemishes, animals or spies.)


Note: It is irrelevant that Doris ends in an s. The possessive s is still included because the s at the end of Doris is not a pluralising s.


There’s only one exception to this simple rule and it comes up so rarely I wouldn’t fret too much if I were you. But, in case you’re interested, it involves words ending in a non-plural s where the possessive s is silent.


Examples: Doris’s is pronounced Dorisus, brass’s is pronounced brassus—and so on. You pronounce the possessive s. But we would not phonetically say Ulyssesus. It remains Ulysses, i.e. the possessive s is silent. On these rare occasions, this silence is indicated by dropping it. So, if Ulysses had a Greek burrowing animal as a pet, it would be Ulysses’ mole.


If, like me, trying to remember this oddity gets in the way of remembering the simple rule that you only drop the possessive s after a pluralising s, forget it. And if you've spotted some of my apostrophe mistakes here or on facebook - apologies.




Book review/recommendation: Jazz by Toni Morrison


This is 1920’s New York Harlem. A black word. A canvas of events and lives encapsulated within the first strange paragraph of the book and then broadened and expanded. Like a jazz sco


re, it’s dissonant and challenging but sophisticated and worth it. Wronged women and weak men, temptation and violence, it’s all in there. The music of sex and violence.




A thank you to pixabay for the photo.

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