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June 18th, 2008

Non-possessive possessives / neither or / a long way or ways?

by Barbara Wallraff


Roger Laske, of Clinton Township, Mich., writes: “I have recently taken over editing a genealogical journal and question the use of an apostrophe in ‘St. Anne’s Church’ or ‘St. Mary’s Church.’ Both churches use the apostrophe, but if we’re referring to the churches in an article, does it belong? The name is not possessive, nor does it seem to be a contraction.”


Dear Roger: Whoever gave the name “possessive” to the English possessive case has a lot to answer for. People tend to assume possessive words indicate ownership -- but that’s not necessarily true. Consider phrases like “a life’s work” and “a moment’s reflection.” “Life’s” and “moment’s” are possessive, but here the apostrophe-“s” is roughly equivalent to “of”: “the work of a life,” “the reflection of a moment.” St. Anne’s Church is the church of St. Anne. The name is possessive.

Granted, we can’t reverse the order of the words in every phrase with “of” in it, add apostrophe-“s” and have it come out right. The Book of Job isn’t also “Job’s Book,” nor is the queen of hearts “the hearts’ queen.” The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is otherwise known as the “Teamsters Union,” without an apostrophe -- but that’s mainly because the Teamsters choose to spell it that way, and it’s their name.

Teachers colleges, among other institutions, also tend to leave off the apostrophe. I don’t approve, because “teachers” in this phrase seems to me plainly possessive (as well as plural). Why? Well, let’s build a similar phrase using a plural that doesn’t end in “s” -- for instance, “women” -- so that the possessive will sound different from the plural. And here we have “women’s college” -- possessive. I find it ironic that teachers colleges, of all things, should be named in an arguably ungrammatical way, but they didn’t ask me before they decided to leave off the apostrophe.

Is there a clear, all-purpose rule about apostrophes and possessives? I’m sorry, but no. The best we can do is case by case. And in the cases of the churches you mention, the names definitely take apostrophes.





Susan Rock, of Washington Island, Wis., writes: “I was taught (in graduate school) that after ‘neither,’ it is correct to use ‘or,’ not ‘nor.’ Please comment.”


Dear Susan: I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of that classroom. Either your professor coughed or something in the middle of explaining the rule and you misheard, or the professor told you something that isn’t true. The correct patterns are “either ... or,” as in my previous sentence, and “neither ... nor.” Here -- for a refreshing change! -- is a clear rule.




Barbara E. Marsanskis, of Belfast, Maine, writes: “People often say, ‘I have a long ways to go,’ ‘It is a long ways away,’ etc. Am I wrong, or would the proper phrase be ‘a long way’?”


Dear Barbara: People do often say ‘a long ways.’ In fact, they’ve been doing it since the 1500s. Not even the all-
knowing Oxford English Dictionary, however, can explain why. Well, never mind -- the upshot is that “a ways” has been grandfathered into the language to the extent that it’s considered informal, rather than incorrect.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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