A grammatical aside

I just wrote in a comment to my previous entry, “The ability to rate one’s knowledge of a subject accurately is strongly correlated with one’s knowledge.”

Wait a minute.  “One’s”???  Word’s grammar checker didn’t blink at that.  But nor does it blink at “ones”.  According to the OED, “one’s” is the genitive declension of “one”.  Let’s sum up:

Pronoun   Genitive
Me        My
You       Your
Us        Our
Him       His
Her       Hers
Them      Their
Thou      Thine
It        Its
One       One's

I always thought that the reason that “its” doesn’t take an apostrophe-s was because the rule “add an apostrophe-s to form a possessive” applied only to noun phrases, not to pronouns (And of course, we all know that apostrophe-s does not itself form a genitive noun — otherwise, in the sentence “The First Lady is the President of America’s wife,” Laura Bush would be associated with America, not President Bush.)

What the heck is going on here?  Surely there is some grammar pedant out there who can justify this.  My faith in English grammar has been sorely tried.

Update from 2023: My erstwhile colleague Mike Pope, who still writes an entertaining blog about English usage, gave some fascinating historical context.

Mike in 2003:

Well, let’s work backward.

In the phrase “The First Lady is the President of America’s wife”, the possessive is applied to the entire phrase: “(the President of America)’s wife.” This is common; here’s a nice example: “The woman I went to school with’s daughter”.


FWIW, the ability to add a possessive to a noun phrase and not just to a noun is a comparatively recent development in English: “Until well into Middle English times what Jespersen calls the ‘group genitive’, i.e. ‘[the king of England]’s’ nose did not exist, but the usual type was ‘[the king]’s nose of England’. In Old English the usual structure, before the use of the of-possessive would have been ‘the king’s nose England’s’


What’s actually interesting to contemplate is why the hell we have an apostrophe for the possessive at all. Possessive is just the genitive case; as such, it’s a normal noun declension, and has no more need for an apostrophe than the plural does. Nothing is elided with the possessive/genitive. And as noted, pronouns manage without it. German likewise has an -s for the genitive and manages without a possessive marvelously well. So whence the flingin-flangin possessive apostrophe, which does little more these days than confuse and annoy people?

Eric in 2023: I and other commenters pointed out that historically, possessives were formed by adding “es”, and the apostrophe indicates that the “e” has been removed, the same way an apostrophe indicates removal of letters in other contractions. “Its” was originally “ites”.

Mike again:

You’re on the right track with the “e” being elided with an apostrophe – that is indeed the origin of the use of an apostrophe as the indication of the genitive. What seems to have happened is that “ites” got elided, as frequently-used words tend to, but this happened much earlier in the history of English than the elision that happened to all other genitive forms. (Presumably because it was a widely-used word – the workhorses of a language are the ones that tend to get streamlined first, which is why the verb ‘to be’ is highly irregular in most languages.) So the progression looks like this: originally the word was “ites”, then it became “its” at a time when apostrophes were apparently not required on such elisions, and then quite a lot later, we started to elide *all* the genitive forms, but by then it was considered correct to indicate such elisions with an apostrophe.


The issue of elision of the vowel in genitive -es only partly explains the possessive apostrophe; the -as ending was also used for plural of masculine strong nouns in OE

(nice declension and conjugation chart here: http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/courses/handouts/magic.pdf),

which suggests that many noun plurals once had, as they did genitive singular, an unstressed vowel to go with their -s. Granted, it has less to do with how things really were than how they were perceived to be when our not-quite-rational system of orthography was being codified. As I sort of opined earlier, IMO the apostrophe is more trouble than it’s worth for possessives; even educated people are confused about its use, if my email Inbox is any evidence. In historical linguistics, mass confusion about forms is often a prelude to an evolutionary change. 🙂

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