Ask Our Editors: Joint Possession

Q: When there are two names involved in a possessive construction, I always get confused about whether I need one apostrophe + s or two. Can you help?

A: We all know sharing is caring, but the rules for describing joint possession can get a bit fuzzy.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, if the possession of a thing (a rose garden) is the same for both subjects (best friends and neighbors Rupert and Delilah), then only the second subject gets the apostrophe.

Rupert and Delilah's rose garden is the envy of the entire village.

But if possession is discrete or questionable, then both names should be possessive.

It's either Rupert's or Delilah's rose garden. I hope their friendship can survive the dispute.

So, when faced with a sentence that may contain joint possession, ask yourself if each subject has their own thing or if the thing in question is shared. Here are some other examples. 

We attended Bob and Susan’s wedding. (The couple shares the same wedding.)
This year’s holiday party is at Sarah and Jill’s apartment. (The women share the same apartment.)
Pete and Jack’s parents will pick them up this afternoon. (The brothers share the same parents.)
 
BUT
 
Eva’s and Lily’s weddings are on the same day, so you’ll have to choose which to attend. (Each woman has her own wedding.)
This year’s holiday party could be at Ben’s or Jeff’s apartment. (Each man has his own apartment.)
The girls’ and the boys’ cabins need their screen doors repaired. (The girls and boys do not share cabins.)
Pete’s and Jack’s parents will pick them up this afternoon. (In this construction, the boys have separate parents.)

 We hope this helps!

 

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