Double Possessive Revisited

The other day, I received this message from a visitor to Writing Tips:

Which is correct? To be used as a caption under a picture.

  • The Wright and Hilyer family vacation
  • The Wright and Hilyer families vacation
  • The Wright’s and Hilyer’s family vacation
  • The Wright’s and Hilyer’s families vacation

Here’s my reply

Hi, Susan. Thank you for your question. What to write under the photo depends on the situation.

  • If two families, the Wrights and the Hilyers, are vacationing together, I would write “The Wright and Hilyer families’ vacation.”
  • If John Wright and Susie Hilyer are married, and she has kept her maiden name, I would write “The Wright and Hilyer family’s vacation.”
  • If Wright and Hilyer is the name of a company that offers vacation packages, I would write “The Wright & Hilyer Family Vacation.”

Best, Tara

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Sentence Structure: Does it Matter?

Ann, who lives in Australia, wrote:

 I was not born in Australia and was shocked to learn that I speak the language better than many average ‘natives’…the education system here does not teach the kids proper use of the language, nobody really cares whether people understand the basic concepts, such as parts of speech, punctuation, modifiers. That, as well as the huge impact text messaging and geek-spell are having on the language, is why we are seeing such appalling writing everywhere. It greatly upsets language nerds like me.

I have noticed the same thing here in the United States, and author Alexander McCall Smith, who was born in Botswana [now Zimbabwe] and taught law there, has noticed a similar trend. In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, published in 2012, he describes the loss of basic math skills:

“If you ask [Charlie] to do some simple calculation—such as what the capacity of a fuel tank might be if you take a bit of it off—he looks blank and reaches for his pocket calculator.”

She thought about this. Some things just had to be learned through effort, and she was not sure how popular effort currently was. “It is all different,” she said. ”But these people who cannot add up are good at computers and things like that.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But there are things other than computers. There are proper machines with cogs and grease. Are they good at those? Are they good at fixing ploughs?”

What do you think? How important is it to know how to add, subtract, and divide without relying on a calculator, to write a complete sentence, to repair a plough? Or for that matter, grow your own food? Can the world get along  without these skills?

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Resource List

A visitor to this blog recently asked for a list of the books that have been particularly valuable to me as an editor and that I recommend to other editors and would-be editors.

Compiling the list was a pleasure, and sharing it allows me to express my great gratitude to those who wrote and edited these wonderful books.

Here’s the list:

  • On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Funny, engaging, inspiring. Very sharp focus on writing uncluttered nonfiction.
  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook, by Amy Einsohn. Clear, straightforward, lots of tips.
  • Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, by Chris Roerden. Excellent. It’s not surprising that the author is an award-winning editor of fiction.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press. A rich resource that’s now available online as well as in print.
  • Guide to News Writing, by Rene J. Cappon. For professional journalists. It’s Associated Press style.
  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Fundamental.
  • Writing from the Inside Out, by Dennis Palumbo (engaging, heartening)


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Punctuation Clinic

As I was reading along, thoroughly enjoying a murder mystery, this sentence stopped me cold. It’s a terrific example of a run-on sentence, and I couldn’t make sense of it:

“I’ve said no comment can’t comment and plain I really don’t know more times than I can count and your Mrs. Martin created some kind of furor at the marina.”

To fix it, I’d use single quotation marks to separate what the speaker is saying now from what he said in the past. Then I’d put the brakes on the run-on sentence with a semicolon, and add a few words to switch gears, like this:

“I’ve said ‘no comment,’ ‘can’t comment,’ and plain, ‘I really don’t know,’ more times than I can count; and by the way, your Mrs. Martin created some kind of furor at the marina.”

Any thoughts?


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Possessive Pronoun

Last week, Marc wrote:

How do idioms work? In particular, which of these is correct:

That seems up you and your wife’s alley.
That seems up your and your wife’s alley.

There’s no real ‘alley’, so the guidelines with respect to possession don’t apply.

The second example, “That seems up your and your wife’s alley,” is correct. In it, the possessive pronoun “your” indicates that Marc and his wife share the same interests or qualifications (their interests or qualifications are “up the same alley”), and that something of mutual interest has come to their attention (it’s up their alley”).

The first example, “That seems up you and your wife’s alley,” would never be correct, because neither “you alley” nor “you wife’s alley” makes sense.

I have never come across any rule stating that the guidelines with respect to possession don’t apply to idioms.

As always, I invite your questions and comments.


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A Quiet Cigarette

I am a great fan of murder mysteries, and in one that I read several months ago, I came across this sentence:

The steward was outside the laundry, enjoying a quiet cigarette.

My mind promptly seized on a quiet cigarette, and wouldn’t let it go. Fretful and anxious, the mind wondered if the author had ever known a cigarette to be loud. If so, how loud, and what kind of sound did the cigarette make?

Then a similar phrase came to mind: a quiet moment.

Though it never occurred to me until my mind balked at a quiet cigarette, a quiet moment doesn’t make much sense either.

Being the stickler for clear writing that I am, I’d probably change the offending sentence to something like this:

The steward was outside the laundry, quietly enjoying a cigarette.

That would make more sense. But it wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining or fun.

Tara Treasurefield
Tara’s Writing Studio

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Double Possessive

Last week, I received this question from Cherie:

Which is correct?
the College’s associate’s degree programs or
the College’s associate degree programs?

First things first.

If the college uses associate degree programs, I’d recommend:

The college’s associate degree programs.

If the college uses associate’s degree programs, I’d avoid the double possessive by putting it like this:

The associate’s degree programs at the college.

You have probably noticed that I changed College (up style of capitalization) to college (down style of capitalization).

Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook offers several examples of down style versus up style:

  • down style: The president announced; The Truman administration; After the secretary of state left
  • up style: The President announced; The Truman Administration; After the Secretary of State left.

Here’s another example of down style, from The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition:

Albion College was founded in 1835. The college has some illustrious alumni.

Chicago favors down style. So do I. With up style, my eyes strain over the many ups and downs.

What do you think? Any comments, questions?

Tara’s Writing Studio

Posted in capitalization, possessive noun | 4 Comments