September 10, 2009

Language Tips: A primer of possessives & complement or compliment

Posted in compliment/complement at 5:57 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: A primer of possessives

As I read your proposals, I see that possessives can be problematic because 1) the rules changed pretty radically around 2000 or 2001, and 2) I suspect that, for some, there is a lack of recognition that a word is showing possession. Remember, possessives show ownership.

Let’s go over the rule change. Until the early 2000s, [NOTE: I know that term seems odd, but after researching it a bit, I have come up with nothing better] the rule was that if a singular word ended with s and we wanted to make it possessive, we added an apostrophe and nothing else.

So , if we were talking about James owning a dog, we used to write James’ dog. If the dog’s name was Countess, and Countess had a ball, it used to be Countess’ ball.

But, as I said, around the turn of this century, all of that changed. Now, when we make a singular word ending with an s possessive, we must use ‘s. So the above examples are now written James’s dog and Countess’s ball.

This makes some sense since this is the way they are actually pronounced.

So, even if you were taught that singular words ending with s should use just an apostrophe to show possession, that is no longer the case.

Another problem occurs when we are using plural words to show possession. [REMEMBER, the above refers to singular words ending with s.] Lots of people try to follow the new rule for plural as well as for singular words. IT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT.

If a plural word ends with an s, and you want to make it possessive, just add the apostrophe and nothing more. So cars belonging to boys would become the boys’ cars. Computers belonging to teachers would become the teachers’ computers.

Again, this makes sense when you think about the pronunciation. We wouldn’t pronounce boys’ cars – boises cars – we would pronounce it – bois cars – so, we should spell it that way, too (boys’).

That being said, when I googled boys’s, I got almost 3 million hits. That doesn’t make it right, it just makes it a pretty common error.

There are other rules involving possessives and apostrophes, but this is a start. To summarize, the rules are pretty straight forward:

You make a singular word ending with an s possessive by adding ‘s. You make a plural word ending with an s possessive by just adding ‘.

By the way, you know how I’ve said that commas and periods go within quotes and apostrophes. That doesn’t apply when you are talking about possessives. When using possessives, the commas or periods go OUTSIDE the apostrophe.

Tip 2: Compliment or complement

We covered this tip a while ago, but recently I read that:

This training will compliment the applicant’s prior studies in outcomes research and epidemiology.

And recently, somebody sent me e-mail, asking if I thought her research was appropriate for the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine.

So I thought it was worth another mention.

Compliment and complement sound alike but have very different meanings. As a verb, compliment means to praise or to laud. Complement means to supplement or to complete.
While I am a big fan of praise and think we should compliment you on your accomplishments, in our scientific writing, the word we are looking for is almost always ‘complement’:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

This training will complement the applicant’s prior studies in outcomes research and epidemiology.

The pharmacotherapy will be complemented by occupational and physical therapy.

So when someone tells you that you are doing a great job, he is giving you a compliment, and when he tells you that you need to add something to complete a thing, he is telling you to complement it.




  1. mary said,

    Here’s one for you that I have not been able to figure out in 20 years of having the name Walsh.

    Are we the Walshes or the Walsh’s?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I can help with this. Plurals are never formed by using apostrophes. Your family would be the Walshes. But if we were talking about your boot (why we would be talking about your boot is another story), it would be Mary Walsh’s boot.

  2. jimmy said,

    thank you for explaining the new rule of ‘s and s’. i had noticed this stuff but couldn’t figure why so many people in respected pubs used different forms…i was unaware of the rule change (i didn’t get the memo).

  3. mona said,

    Hmm. Who gets to change the rules? And how do they get the word out (other than through your blog)?

  4. bryna said,

    just curious, who changed the spelling rule on possessives? I’m not against language change, in fact I wholeheartedly support it, but I missed this change and wondered who or what governing body enacted the change? As always, thank you, b

  5. deb said,

    It was first published in the 2002 AP Stylebook. But almost all references endorse it, including:
    Garner, BA. Garner’s Modern American Usage.Oxford University Press, USA; 3 edition (August 27, 2009); Walsh B. The Elephants of Style. McGraw Hill, New York, 2004; O’Conner, PT. Woe is I. Riverhead Books, New York, 2003 among others. I’ve gotten lots of email on this so you are not alone in not knowing about this change.

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