Possessive Case With Proper Nouns

Posted in TechComm on 10/3/20174 min read

Grammar

Any technical writer should know their grammar. Actually, they should know a lot of other things and possess many other skills. But grammar comes first. In case you are wondering about the ‘other things’ a tech writer should be able to do, take a look at this article on 11 skills of a good technical writer. It'll give you the right idea.

Returning to the topic, there are several pages in the English grammar that will make you keep coming back to Google for help. The use of the Possessive Case (especially with proper nouns) is one of those tough guys.

This article will lay all the basics of the Possessive Case usage in front of you. So, next time you forget how to use it - you’ll have a place to come back to.

What is Possessive Case?

First, we are going to define this grammar phenomenon. It’s easy - we use the Possessive Case when we need to show that one object owns another object. We add an apostrophe + ‘s’ to the end of the noun that possesses the other object, like:

John’s laptop

Sally’s daily reports

In most cases, we use it with animate objects.

Note that if we have several objects that possess something, then the apostrophe + ‘s’ will be added to the last one of the group:

Bill and Ted’s account

So, seems like we got the ground rules set up. Let’s move on to something more challenging.

Possessive Case With Proper Nouns

Proper Nouns Ending in ‘s’

This is where all the ‘fun’ starts for many technical writers. If my name were James, how should I use the Possessive Case with it? Should I write James’ or James’s?

Style Guide

And, the thing is - it doesn’t really matter. There’s simply no correct answer. Different style guides approach this dilemma differently. Some style guides even change their opinion with time.

So, if you are facing this dilemma in your user manual, here’s our advice:

  • Check how proper names ending in ‘s’ are written in your company. Is there a style guide mention on that? If there is a certain obvious trend, just keep on using it to preserve consistency.
  • If it’s 50/50, and there’s no style guide notes on this, try to establish your own order of things. Just pick the option that feels more natural to you and specify it in your corporate style guide for others to follow.

If you find it hard to pick one option, use a user guide of some big company for reference. For example, Microsoft in its Style Guide Edition 4 states that the possessive of plural nouns that end in 's' should be formed just by adding an apostrophe.

Possessive Case With Company Names and UI Elements

If we read the Microsoft Style Guide further, we’ll find out that this company advises against using the possessive form of the company name and other company names. Plus, the use of the possessive form of a product, service, UI element, or feature name is also restricted.

Work

Any technical documentation has at least half of the things mentioned above. Software documentation can include all of them. Here’s what Microsoft suggests: one should use nouns as adjectives, or use an ‘of’ construction instead of the Possessive Case. For example:

Folder properties or properties of a folder would be correct. While a folder’s properties is not the way Microsoft would put it.

Of course, Microsoft is not giving us the ultimate truth here. But, it is a very reliable source and example to follow anyway.

Conclusion

In this article, we tried to cover the use of the Possessive Case with proper nouns and just any nouns in general.

Remember this: if you are following the rules yourself and getting the grammar right - this is great. But, always check the rest of the team does the same. Consistency in user manuals is awesome!

Each documentation team should definitely have a style guide to follow. First, you can use a guide of some other company as a reference, but, at the end of the day, you need to work on one of your own.

In order for everyone to use the style guide, include it in your documentation plan. This way, everyone will be able to reach it fast.

The fact that you are reading this article right now proves that the Possessive Case dilemma's gotta be in your corporate style guide, for sure :)

Happy Technical Writing!
ClickHelp Team

 

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