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Two things cause problems
for writers using the possessive. One is that in most cases the
plural and the possessive are both formed by adding the letter "s"; the
other is that some possessives use apostrophes and some don't.
Plurals vs. possessives
always formed without an apostrophe, even if you're talking about a
set of years or a family; just add "s" or "es":
Possessives are almost always
formed using apostrophes. For singular nouns, the apostrophe comes
before the "s":
the book's cover
the table's legs
the class's grades
If the noun forms a regular
plural--in other words, if the plural is formed by adding "s" or "es"--the
apostrophe in the possessive comes after the "s":
the books' covers
the tables' legs
the classes' grades
If the noun forms an irregular
plural, add an apostrophe and an "s" at the end:
Don't confuse possessives
with "ies" plurals:
our society's condition (singular and possessive)
the condition of many societies (plural)
the societies' goals (plural and possessive)
personal pronouns; it's vs. its
personal pronouns form possessives without apostrophes:
his, hers, yours, theirs
The same is true of "it":
the possessive is "its" (no apostrophe)
= the contraction
of "it is"
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An antecedent is the
noun that a pronoun refers to. Pronoun-antecedent agreement means
that the pronoun must agree with--or match--the antecendent that it refers
to in number. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must be
singular, too; if it's plural, then the pronoun must also be plural.
The sentence can make it a bit unclear whether the antecedent is
singular or plural. Consider the following sentence:
He is one of the people who [is
] going to the party.
Is "who" singular or plural?
It's clear that it does not refer to "he" but to "people" and is therefore
plural, so the correct verb is "are." If you were to specify the
individual in some way--perhaps by saying "he is the one"--then the "who"
would be singular.
One common difficulty arises when we use personal pronouns like "he,"
"she," and "they." At one time, we used male pronouns to refer to any unknown
The average person wants to know what is expected of
him in his job.
That is clearly sexist. The solution has been to say "he or she," "him
or her," and so on for the singular nouns, and treat "they," "them," and
"their" as only for plural nouns:
Every student wants to get a good mark in his or her
However, the question of pronouns has become more complicated now,
as many people identify as non-binary, so it has become more acceptable
to use "they," "them," and "their" for an individual. Use care in dealing
with the issue, and when you know what pronouns an individual prefers, use
In some cases, the best thing to do is to change the antecedent to plural:
People want to know what
is expected of them in their jobs.
All the students want to do well in their
Unclear Pronoun Reference
Be sure that your pronoun
refers to a clear antecedent, not an entire clause or other vague thing:
The Creature is a wretched being, which
leads to a life of solitude and desperation.
It's virtually impossible
to pinpoint exactly what "which" is referring to. Try to be specific:
The Creature is a wretched being, a condition that
leads to a life of solitude and
For "which" and "that,"
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There is a group of
pronouns known as relative pronouns
they introduce relative
. Some are personal
Some are impersonal
If you use a relative pronoun,
be sure to use a personal one if you refer to a person or people, and
an impersonal one to refer to a thing or things:
He is the person who
is going to the party NOT
He is the person that
is going is going to the party
That vs. which
These two pronouns
are often used interchangeably. They should be used for different
circumstances: use "that" if the clause it introduces is restrictive,
and "which" if it is nonrestrictive. Is the clause absolutely necessary
for the sentence (restrictive), or does it just provide extra, nonessential
information (nonrestrictive)? In the first sentence below, the "that"
clause is essential to the meaning; in the second, the "which" clause can
be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence:
The team that scores the most goals wins. (restrictive)
The team, which scored fifty goals this
season, set a new record. (nonrestrictive)
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