English language Uncategorized

How possessive can you get?

Q: What’s the correct way to make a possessive of a word that’s already possessive? Do you say “McDonald’s’s fries”? Or “St. John’s’s team”? It seems wrong to use one ’s right after another ’s, but I can’t think of a better way to do it.

A: No, we don’t use possessive forms like “McDonald’s’s” or “St. John’s’s.” Here’s the story.

Proper names are sometimes nouns that look possessive; they have ’s as a fixed part of the name. Corporate examples include McDonald’s and Standard & Poor’s in the US and Sainsbury’s in the UK. Academic and religious names sometimes include ’s as well (St. John’s University, St. Anne’s Church).

A name like this is treated as an ordinary noun: “McDonald’s uses a secret formula” … “Standard & Poor’s hasn’t issued a rating” … “Sainsbury’s is closed today” … “St. John’s has a new coach.”

But when such a name is used in the possessive case, it is not given an additional ’s as an ordinary noun would be. Instead, the existing ’s is allowed to do double duty: “McDonald’s recipe” … “Standard & Poor’s ratings” … “Sainsbury’s employees” … “St. John’s new coach.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed.) calls this practice “quite defensible,” and you can see how it came into use. To make such a name possessive by adding a second ’s would result in a monstrosity: “McDonald’s’s recipe is a secret” … “St. John’s’s new coach is promising.”

If you don’t like using a single ’s for both functions, it’s easy enough to rephrase the sentence: “The recipe used by McDonald’s is a secret” … “The new coach at St. John’s is promising.”

A little possessiveness can go a long way.

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 3, 2022.]

Buy our books at a local store or