St. Mary’s Bells

Having spent hours looking up a rule of punctuation, I’m giving up and turning to you, smart and learned readers.

The question is: How does one punctuate the possessive form of a name that is already possessive? Put another way, when the name of a store or a church is possessive—ending in apostrophe-s—and is used in the possessive, is a second apostrophe added? How about another s, while we’re at it?

Here’s an example: The name of the store is Trader Joe’s. I want to refer to their produce. If I say “Trader Joe’s produce is always fresh,” that appears to refer to the produce of one man, Trader Joe. It would make sense to write, “Trader Joe’s’ produce is always fresh,” but we all know English does not always make sense. And that second apostrophe looks like a second thumb on one hand.

Here’s another example: Say St. Michael’s Catholic Church, familiarly called “St. Michael’s,” has a website. Would we refer to it as “St. Michael’s website?” If so, would that not imply that St. Michael himself had a website?

As I said, I’ve looked high and low for the answer, in the collection of style guides that live on my shelves and on the Internet. There are volumes about the possessive of plural nouns, proper nouns and words ending in sibilants (I had to look up sibilant). When I found a tip about double possessives, I thought I was on to something, but it had nothing to do with my question.

Please don’t suggest I flip it around. “The nuts at Trader Joe’s” would be cheating and I’d like to crack this one.

It looks as though the person who named the film The Bells of St. Mary’s took the easy way out.


Filed under All Things Wordish

10 responses to “St. Mary’s Bells

  1. Bruce McGuire

    I think that the easy or should I say lazy way out is how I’ll go. The less key strokes the better when you only use two fingers!

  2. You won’t find it in today’s grammarbooks. You’d have to go for those pocket (or as we say in the UK, “gem”) grammarbooks for preparatory (elementary) schools published in 1890s or 1900s in the UK. The rule comes in two forms:

    (a) formal usage: “the produce of Trader Joe’s”
    (b) semi-formal/informal usage: “Trader Joe’s produce” (no change)

    True double possessives (the Trader Joe’s’ you’re thinking of) doesn’t operate in Standard English – although you might find it in Latin and Chinese – but that’s another story.

    Just my twopence.

  3. I should just clarify that “Trader Joe’s” is considered a single proper noun, so that “the produce of Trader Joe’s” is not actually a double possessive, even though it looks like one. That you can say and it would be grammatical, unlike “this is a friend of John’s” (which is considered acceptably grammatical for informal situations).

    • As best I could determine, an example of a true double possessive would be “my sister’s husband’s car.” Then there’s a compound possessive, “Mary’s and John’s house.” I can’t even find a name for the use about which I am wondering.

      I’m still stumped. Even though Trade Joe’s is a single proper noun, how is it made possessive when the name is already possessive without it looking like the ‘owner’ is the man and not the store (even there probably is no man)? Or the saint in the other example? Let’s turn Trader Joe into St. Joe, as in St. Joseph’s University.Would not “St. Joseph’s campus” imply that the campus belonged to the saint, rather than the university?

      • Yes, I’m sorry, I stand corrected (my brain isn’t what it used to be, or ever been). “Mary’s and John’s house” (or “Mary and John’s house”) is a correct double possessive in English. Furthermore, a phrase like “Mary is a friend of John’s” is also correct, especially in the manner of third-party reference.

        No, the English language is decidedly not a ‘literal’ language, unlike other languages such as German. “Trader Joe’s” is to be regarded as the proper noun/name for the shop/business.

        The world of journalism (sometimes) provide a helpful workaround: simply differentiate the business and the person, e.g. “Trader Joe’s is run by trader Joe,” etc. Joe is Joe and Trader Joe’s is Trader Joe’s, and ne’er the twain shall they meet, if you know what I’m driving at.

        Despite what linguists (as in linguistics) might claim, English (and Chinese) are highly contextualised languages, so that “St. Joseph’s campus” should rightly be considered belonging to the university rather than the saint, depending on the context and composition of the surrounding text. If we’re not talking about the saint, we shouldn’t be bringing in unnecessary doubt or reference to the saint.

        So, commenter Sharon (below) is correct. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to drop the apostrophe for place names if apostrophe does appear in the place name.

      • This is helpful. Thanks to everyone for your perspectives.and for pointing us to other writings on the subject.

        I’m counting on you for comments on today’s (Friday’s) post as well!

  4. Shawn Kimbro

    I doubt it would be a popular solution, but how about we just drop the apostrophes in any possessive used as a place name? That’s already common in geographical names anyway (example: St. Michaels or Jamestown). So, Trader Joe’s would be okay if you’re writing about their dark chocolate smothered pretzels, but otherwise write “I have to stand in line at Trader Joes while my wife buys wine.”

  5. Sharon

    I learned somewhere not to add an extra apostrophe. I think that in most cases where the writer is referring to McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s and St. Michael’s, the reader should be able to infer by context that it is a business or institution that is being referenced, and not an individual, so the confusion should be minimal.

    You may have seen this, but the writer at:

    has a lengthy discussion of this topic, and asks for help from readers, too.

    This site:

    has readers’ opinions on the possessive of McDonald’s,
    and I bet the contributors to this site, for “The Apostrophe Protection Society” would have an opinion, but I don’t want to register:

    Finally, some of your readers above suggested the trend with regard to possessives in geographic names, organizations, and businesses (that is, not using them) also noted in an interesting section of Wikipedia’s apostrophe entry. The APS is actually mentioned with regard to businesses. I’d be happy to paste it here, but it’s a bit long, so let me know.

    Still no definitive source for you, I’m afraid. Those APS people might be rabid enough to track it down, though!

  6. Polly

    Interesting discussion

  7. Depends.

    If you are using the term as an adjective, then no change is required.
    Bob: What kind of wine is that?
    Larry: It’s Trader Joe’s wine.
    Bob: Oh? I haven’t tried that kind.

    If you are using the term as a possessive, then you follow the standard form for possessives: Add an apostrophe-s to the end of the noun, except for plural nouns that end in ‘s’, in which case you only need the apostrophe.

    Trader Joe’s is a singular, not plural, noun, Mc Donald’s, as a corporation, is a singular noun. St. Michael’s (Catholic Church) is a single noun. As such, these terms get an apostrophe-s.

    Bob: Oh? I haven’t tried that wine.
    Larry: Have you tried Gallo Winery’s wine?
    Bob: Yes, and it’s pretty awful stuff.
    Larry: You’ll like this better. Rinse out the wine already in your glass, and I’ll pour you some of Trader Joe’s’s.
    [Yes, I know how ugly “Trader Joe’s’s” looks. But it does follow the guidelines for using apostrophes to indicate possession.]

    By the way: You would not write “Mary’s and John’s house.” The use of apostrophes for each name indicates that they are NOT co-owners of the house. They have separate houses, meaning you need to make “house” plural: “Mary’s and John’s houses.” On the other hand, if they are co-owners of the house, you would write “Mary and John’s house.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s