Words have always been important to me. During my adolescent years, I would often correct people when they used words that didn’t convey what I knew they meant to say. Annoying? Yes. I am sure of it. I don’t remember how old I was when I figured that out, but at some point I matured enough to realize it was okay if people didn’t always say what they meant. Maybe it was when I finally began to comprehend God’s grace. The realization that relationship is more important than semantics has surely made it easier on my friends and family.
But despite our ability to discern what’s really going on in an oral conversation, written communication is easily misunderstood if we don’t have a good grasp on grammar. Precision is especially important in the written word, because body language and non-verbal communication cues are absent.
One grammar aspect that can be confusing is the possessive apostrophe. Does it go before the s or after the s? What if a word is plural but doesn’t end in s? If we have two nouns joined by and, do they both take an apostrophe? The rules can make your head spin. To help you remember how to use the apostrophe correctly, let’s tie it in with an important truth from God’s Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . [A]s many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:1, 12-13 KJV).
This beautiful Scripture identifies every believer as a child of God. You are God’s child! You may have heard this so many times that it doesn’t faze you. Yeah, so what? I already knew that. But I encourage you to take some time today to meditate on this truth. Jesus was God’s son. He told us that the works He did, we would do also. John told us that as Jesus is, so are we. Take another look at Jesus’s life, and meditate on the awesome miracle God has done by making you like Him.
Look through the previous paragraph again. Can you pick out the possessives? Possessives are words that show ownership. Something belongs to them.
If you said “of God,” “God’s,” and “Jesus’s,” you got it right. These are three examples of how to form a possessive.
The first form here, “of God,” is called the “of”-genitive. Genitive is the same as possessive, but has a broader connotation. The choice to use an “of”-genitive instead of an apostrophe is one of style. Would you like to be known as a friend of God or God’s friend? It’s the same thing but one has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Although some nouns only sound right as an “of”-genitive, most possessive forms of nouns are formed with an apostrophe. If the noun is singular, you will form the possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s. This is true even when the noun already ends in s, is the name of a person, like Jesus, or has a silent s at the end, like Descartes. Hence our earlier use of God’s and Jesus’s.
If the noun is plural (more than one), you will generally add only the apostrophe at the end of the word (e.g., angels’ wings, cats’ paws, stars’ light). Sometimes a plural noun will not end in s. In this case, add both the apostrophe and the s (e.g., children’s prayers, women’s laughter).
So what if you have two subjects that both have ownership? Think about Peter and Andrew, the two brothers in Matthew 4 who were casting their net into the sea. Whose net was it? It was Peter and Andrew’s net. Since the net belonged to both of them, you would only add the apostrophe and s to the second subject; in this case it is Andrew. But imagine they each had their own net. Let’s say Peter was on one side of the boat with one net and Andrew was on the other side with a second net. Then you would say they were Peter’s and Andrew’s nets.
Expressing correctly what belongs to whom helps readers form a proper identity for the thing possessed. If readers see, “Jane’s parent’s car,” they will picture only one of Jane’s parents owning the car. Or if you say, “Bob and Joe’s term paper,” readers will imagine a joint assignment.
Think about the following possessive phrases. Try to picture these in your mind: God’s beloved, righteousness of God, Jesus’s passion, the Father’s favored child. Are you having trouble creating these images? Try this. Jot down those four phrases on a sheet of paper and take it with you to your bathroom. Then look in the mirror. The image you see embodies these possessive phrases. Say them out loud while looking at your reflection, “God’s beloved. Righteousness of God. Jesus’s passion. The Father’s favored child.” Next time you get stuck on a possessive, take a few minutes to refocus on the One who possesses you and remember to whom you belong.
For more information on possessives and other grammar guidelines, pick up a copy of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, by Kathy Ide or The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition. Also, feel free to e-mail me with questions or comments.
Freelance Editor and Indexer
Join me May 1–2, 2015 in Austin, Texas at PENCON 2015, the only convention for Christian editors. Learn how to enter the editing field or enhance an already established business. Network with other editors, and meet with the speakers one-on-one. Visit: http://thechristianpen.com/convention-2/