Friday, 24 February 2017

Possession and Other Dangers


 You thought I was going to talk about demonic possession, didn't you? Well, I'm not. William Blatty and Joss Whedon have, I feel, said all that needs to be said (remarkably little) about that.

Not this kind of possession, either.
The kind of possession of which I speak is grammatical. You knew that was coming, didn't you?

There is a disturbing trend nowadays among many Americans - I hope it is limited to America, I haven't seen it anywhere else - completely to ignore possessive case, and to say things like "I am Mary personal assistant". I am not sure where this comes from, but suspect it originated in some gutter dialect. Be that as it may, it won't do, people. It won't do at all.

Forming the Possessive

Forming the possessive of a noun is not difficult.


1 's' (not always required)
1 apostrophe


1. Place the apostrophe at the end of the word of which you want to form the possessive.
2. Now examine your root word. Look at the last letter. Is it an 's'? If it is, then you've finished.
3. If it is any other letter, place an 's' after the apostrophe.

Example 1: Mary
1. Mary'
2. no, it's not an 's'
3. Mary's

Example 2: dogs
1. dogs'
2. yes, it is an 's'
3. you don't need to do anything else.

Now, don't jump all over me for being overly simplistic and patronising. Many of the things I have been writing about in this blog are things that no ordinary adult needs to be told. But be assured, I don't waste my time writing about a thing unless I have seen many, many people getting it wrong. So if you're not the one who needs to be told this, just enjoy the LOLCATs and be glad your parents gave you a decent education. 


There are simple but finite rules to terminating sentences.

Every sentence must end with a terminal punctuation mark. This is ordinarily a period (.), but can also be a question mark, exclamation point or ellipsis (...). Note that commas, colons and semicolons are not terminal punctuation; they can only be used within a sentence, not to close it. 

Every punctuation mark should be followed by a space, unless it is immediately followed by end quotes. An ellipsis is not an exception to this.

EVERY speech must end with some form of punctuation before the end quotes. This can be a period, comma, dash (to show a sudden interruption), ellipsis (to show the speaker trailing off), question mark or exclamation point. There MUST always be something.

When a speech stands alone (not enclosed within another sentence), it is punctuated as a normal sentence would be, except for being enclosed in quotes.

EG: “OK, Dad, I will try to stop being such a loser.” 

However, when the speech is enclosed within a sentence, its punctuation changes slightly. If the sentence continues after the end of the speech, the terminal period in the speech becomes a comma:
“OK, Dad, I will try to stop being such a loser,” said Joe.

This is because the speech is the object of the speech verb. 
If the speech is enclosed in a sentence which goes on after the end of the speech DO NOT EVER use a period: 
WRONG: “OK, Dad, I will try to stop being such a loser.” Said Joe. 
Do not do this.


Another thing I frequently see in the work of incompetent writers is random words given initial capitals. 

There are two places where the initial letter of a word must be capitalised: a) when it is the first word in a sentence, and b) when the word is a name, or is being used in place of a name (as Mum, Dad &c), or is a title (e.g. The Greatest Show On Earth). There is a third way, when words are capitalised ironically, to reveal something about the speaker's attitude ('The butler made his displeasure felt. Monkeys in the Drawing Room were Not What He Had Been Accustomed To.') but it is rather old-fashioned and one rarely sees it nowadays.

In no other case should you capitalise initial letters of a word. You may capitalise the entire word to show shouting in dialogue, but initial capitals are used ONLY as mentioned above. 

That's all I'm going to say about capitalisation. I spoke about this at some length in Six Common Errors in Punctuation, on 21 February, so if you want more detail, you can go there.


The indefinite article is 'a', but when it precedes a word that starts with a vowel, it is 'an'. This is an ease of use thing, rather like the way that Italian speakers, uncomfortable with two consonants colliding, tend to insert an 'a' in between. It just makes it easier to say.

Unlike the pleasantly exotic sound of an Italian accent, though, saying things like 'I love being a author' - and yes, I have actually seen this very sentence used on more than one occasion - is vile, cringeworthy, and roughly equivalent to having 'hopeless wannabe' tattoed on one's forehead.

A cat
An cat
An elephant
A elephant
A question
An question
An answer
A answer


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