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A Word, Please: Possessives provide many opportunities to make mistakes

Note to aspiring cab company operators: If you want to appeal to the broadest possible customer base, don’t just market yourself as a taxi for the people. That would be too limiting. Instead, declare yourself a taxi of the peoples. All of them.

This flash of entrepreneurial genius came to me recently as I sat at a traffic light behind a taxi emblazoned with the words “Peoples’ Taxi.”

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The message was a powerful one: This taxi isn’t just for people. It’s for all the peoples — the people of the USA and the people of Kyrgyzstan and any people who might consider themselves denizens of the International Space Station.

I kid. I kid the Peoples’ Taxi — and I do so not because they made an unforgivable error but because I’m perennially frustrated by just how hard possessives can be. They should be easy. The rules are simple enough. But in the real world, possessives are a minefield of opportunities to mess up.

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That’s true even for people who work with words all day long. Take this sentence I saw recently in a BuzzFeed article: “But most family’s don’t include a member of Congress.”

That one’s pretty bad.

Here’s another I spotted around the same time: “Both mine and my wife’s family are based here in South Florida.”

That’s not bad at all, really. But it’s not quite right, either.

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Let’s look at each of these in turn, starting with the Peoples’ Taxi.

“People” is confusing because it’s plural in meaning even though it’s singular in form. That adds a layer of complication on top of the rules for forming plural possessives.

Those rules are as follows: Add an S to make most words plural: dogs. Add an apostrophe after the plural S to make the word plural possessive: the dogs’ tails.

But “people” isn’t most words. It’s plural even though it doesn’t end with an S. To get it right you need to know not just the basic rules but also that this is an exception to those rules.

For a plural that doesn’t end in S, add both an apostrophe and an S. The People’s Taxi is a taxi of the people. I suppose you could talk about a taxi of peoples, as in all the different peoples of the world, but I’m not sure how dispatch would handle that.

BuzzFeed’s mistake is a little more egregious, but I’m sure it was just a typo. They wanted to refer to plural families, not singular possessive family’s, as in, “The Smith family’s house is down the street.” We all make mistakes.

As for “Both mine and my wife’s family are based in South Florida,” this was a direct quotation from someone speaking aloud. People speak in the way that seems most natural to them, which usually gets you a good choice if not a perfectly correct one.

But for the record, there are two problems here. One is “mine.” You would never say “I visited mine family.” Adding “and my wife—’s” doesn’t change that rule. But in everyday speech, it might as well. “My and my wife’s” sounds wrong even though it’s right.

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This happens a lot with compounds like “with Joe’s and my” and “your and his.” That extra person throws us off. So always try dropping the second person — the “and my wife’s” -- to see how your sentence works. If you end up with “mine family,” you know you need to change something.

The other problem, of course, is that the speaker probably meant to refer to his wife’s family as separate from his own. That’s two families. The best way to recast this sentence, then, would be “Both my and my wife’s families are based here in South Florida.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know. She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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