Is that your endorphone ringing?
Possessive forms can perplex all of us from time to time, as The Wall Street Journal reminded it's page-one readers on October 10: "Crimson-faced over punctuation? A lavatory at the Harvard Club of Boston is labeled |Mens' Room.'"
Possessive plurals can be extra daunting, witness this newspaper head: "Bushes's drinking water being checked for disease clue." Bushes is the right nominative plural. To make it possessive we need only the apostrophe: Bushes'. The WSJ citation wants for men's.
Why the difference? The possessive form of proper names is made by adding an apostrophe + s to the singular, and an apostrophe alone to a plural: Barbara Bush's husband, the Bushes' residence. With common nouns, make the plural form possessive by adding 's: women's, children's ... unless the plural noun ends in s. Then, add a solo apostrophe: sisters', horses'.
Ancient classical names that end in s traditionally take only an apostrophe to signal possession: Socrates' teaching, Aristophanes' "Lysistrata." Pay particular attention to Achilles when you're writing about tendons and heels. Boston Globe feature writer Larry Tye erred when he told of "the searing soreness (that) moved to my Achille's tendon." Do not invade the name: Make it Achilles' for the possessive - Achilles' heel, Achilles' tendon. (And why we spell tendonitis tendinitis I will not bring up.)
The most outlandish plural form I've seen in years appeared in a booklet that explained how bequests should be made to a certain library: "Be sure to include all of the deceased members full names for whom's memory the Memorial or Gift is given." The possessive of who is whose. Here we need in whose memory. Actually, to make this street-legal we need a massive rewrite. What a perfectly hideous sentence! (My friend Mary Louise Gilman sent it to me. Thanks, M.L. ... I think.)
[N.B. - Before I forget, I confess here to deliberate misuse of it's in my lead sentence. That's a sophomoric ploy that I hope you will forgive, but ... did you recall that personal pronouns in the possessive case - e.g., ours, whose, theirs, hers, yours, and especially its - take no apostrophe? Of course you did ... I knew that.]
But I want to observe that I regularly see "The horse broke it's leg during the jump" and "He couldn't recall who's car was for sale."
* A news story says, "Stanford University led the way (toward diversity and multiculturalism) in 1988, by proposing more non-Western texts in the required freshmen reading lists." Interesting word choice, freshmen. Why the plural form? Would the writer refer to juniors or seniors reading lists? Sophomores? Webster's New World Dictionary displays just what we need: "freshman. …