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What is the correct possessive for nouns ending in s?

"Please submit your and your parent(s)' federal tax returns." Is the possessive of "parent(s)'" correctly formatted in that sentence? I know the apostrophe comes before the "s" for just parent singular, and it would come after the "s" for parents plural, but what if I don't know if it is one or two parents, and therefore want to use the (s)?

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How about: "Please submit your and your parents' (or parent's) federal tax returns." –  Casey Chu Dec 19 '11 at 18:42
    
@Casey: Your bracketed case (parent's) would only be correct in the unlikely event that the writer knew he was addressing someone with only one parent submitting tax returns, but didn't wish to elaborate with your mother's or your father's. –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 18:57
    
@FumbleFingers: It's not a duplicate of that question at all. That question is about the plural of, say, "parents". This is about the plural of "parent(s)", which stands for two words "parent" and "parents". In fact, Derek shows in the second sentence that he already knows the answer to that question. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 21 '11 at 2:51
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@ShreevatsaR: Well, I had to pick a reason, is all. Let's face it - parent(s) is not a word by any definition, so it's pointless considering grammatically-correct inflections to it. I don't like the question. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '11 at 3:31
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@ShreevatsaR: OP's question title makes it clear he wants a "grammatically-defensible" possessive form for the "non-word" parent(s). Neither answer so far even attempts to address that, IMHO because it's meaningless. You're just muddying the waters by implying that perhaps it is a "word". Maybe I should have specified "not constructive" or some other reason, but what difference would that make? You still seem to think it's a valid question for ELU, and I don't. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '11 at 15:14
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Matt Эллен, Mitch, MrHen, kiamlaluno Dec 24 '11 at 18:41

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2 Answers

I take it based on the content of the sentence you are not so worried about technical grammar, and more concerned about unambiguous communication. I think if you leave it the way you have it, the intent can only be interpreted correctly. That having been said, it is obviously not precisely right because omission of the (s) doesn't leave a grammatical remainder. If you want to be right without question (though a little stilted) use some thing like: "Please submit the federal tax returns of yourself and your parent(s)." or "...your tax return and that of your parent(s)." In the second last example, replacing 'of' with 'for' sounds a little better but is slightly less precise semantically.

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The last example fails if there are parents filing separately. –  Ben Voigt Dec 19 '11 at 22:23
    
Yeah, yeah. You could use "...and those of your parent(s)", which is confusing for the common case, but is technically right because "those" would be interpreted as "all those" whether there are two or only one. –  ThePopMachine Dec 23 '11 at 7:17
    
Outside of writers' groups which wish to homogenize their styles, the purpose of "grammatical rules" is to help people determine which methods of expression are likely to be understood correctly. Writing which most readers will correctly comprehend at a glance is generally to be preferred, even if it "breaks the rules", to writing which readers would have to struggle to decipher. –  supercat Oct 23 '12 at 5:59
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Perhaps

Please submit your individual and parental federal tax returns.
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This is not a natural expression. You are trying to circumlocute the original issue using an adjective. Fine in principle, but "parental" is not equivalent to "belonging to your parent(s)". If tax law required submission of a tax return for an individual, plus another one in one's capacity as a parent, that's what a "parental tax return" would be. –  ThePopMachine Dec 23 '11 at 7:21
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