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When we refer to a house that belongs to a family, we say "family's house". Pluralizing family gives us "families". Referring to the houses of several families, we say "families' houses". Forming the plural possessive in such a case is rather simple.

I encountered a more complex use of this recently - referring to a single house owned by a single family in a set of houses owned by a set of families.

We can say "the families' houses" to refer to all of the houses owned by all of the families.

We can say "one of the families' houses" to refer to one of the houses owned by one or more of the families. In this context, "one of" applies to "the families' houses".

If we were instead to apply "one of" to "the families", and want to refer to the one house owned by "one of the families", how would this be written?

My first though was "one of the families's house", taking "one of the families" as a single noun and appending 's to it. This looks (and sounds) a bit strange, though. "One of the families' house" and "one of the family's house"/"one of the family's houses" seem wrong to me, and I can't really determine the correct way to say/write this.

Is there a definitively correct way that this should be written?

EDIT: To clarify, although I think I made it clear, in this context, there are several families, and each ones one house. The goal of the sentence is to refer to one of those houses without stating which specific house. Example: "The players and their families want to celebrate their team's victory; this will likely entail a party at one of the families's house".

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The construct you suggest is rather awkward as you said yourself. The best way to talk about the specific house is to rephrase the sentence and say instead: "...this will probably entail a party at the house of one of the families."

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It is rather awkward phrasing, as you say, so it's probably best recast anyway. But grammatically it seems pretty clear the house in question belongs to one of the families. Which only requires the bare apostrophe to mark possession, so the strict "grammatical" form OP is looking for (but should avoid) is just ...at one of the families' house. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 14:42
@FumbleFingers:I suppose you are right. But it gave me a headache to even think about it, that's why I suggested an alternative phrasing. If I saw this sentence written or (worse) if I heard it, I'd immediately ask for a clarification. When the meaning of certain structures doesn't allow effective communication, these structures should be avoided. –  Irene Feb 6 '12 at 15:19
In all honesty I'm not sure I'd notice anything particularly unusual in the spoken form - where the one of the families part would doubtless be spoken quickly and followed by a slightly emphasised houses. For me, the real headache only comes when I try to figure out how to punctuate it! –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 15:30

We can say "one of the families' houses" to refer to one of the houses owned by one or more of the families. In this context, "one of" applies to "the families' houses"

You actually could have stopped right there because that IS the correct way to punctuate the particular word order you want to use. It's true that you could avoid the issue by choosing a different way to say it, but "one of the families' houses" is also fine.

The use of the phrase "one of the" seems to apply to both "families" and "houses" but from a structural standpoint it actually applies to "houses" in this particular phrase, so all you need to do is put an apostrophe at the end of "families" to make it correct. In this case the possesive form of "families" functions like an adjective (even though it's not - there's some other term for this) describing one of the houses. No matter how many houses there are, it is still going to be ONE of them, and adding "families'" in front makes it more slightly more specific.

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