What is the possessive of boss; ie, how do you describe the son of the boss?
The Law: “There can be only one!”
The possessive of any noun phrase in written English is always formed by:
- Adding an apostrophe at the end of that noun phrase.
- Following that apostrophe with a written “s” when and only when the possessive form is pronounced with an additional “s”-type sound.
That is the only rule, and it has no exceptions. Don’t worry about spelling; only pronunciation counts. That’s the law. All apparent spelling exceptions are not exceptions at all, just applications of the sound law. Once you know the pronunciation, the spelling follows directly and unambiguously, without exception.
To |s| or not to |s|
So to add a written s after that apostrophe depends solely on whether in pronouncing that possessive form, you actually pronounce an extra “s” sound — which may be any of /s/, /əs/, /z/ or /əz/.
I need to talk about that extra sound, which is really four different sounds, quite a bit in the text following. It would be awkward to have to continually enumerate all four of them, so let’s call those four sounds |s| for convenience’ sake.
Which, by the way, is not an exception: one doesn’t say an extra |s| for that particular construction, so rule 2 doesn’t trigger. As I said, the rule of deriving the spelling from the pronunciation has no exceptions.
But rule 1 has no exceptions in writing either, so that’s why taken together you wind up writing for convenience’ sake. It’s what you’ve said, so of course it must be what you write. No exceptions.
Where people get confused is that both the plural inflection and the possessive inflection want to add the same |s| sound, and you can’t have two inflectional |s| endings appended to the same word — in standard speech, at least.
You can get one for the singular to plural inflection, or you can get one for the singular to possessive inflection, but you cannot get two for both plural and possessive inflections.
That’s why plurals which already end in one |s| sound (normally gained by inflection) don’t get another |s| sound added to them; the duplicate sound is suppressed. But most words do.
Since boss doesn’t yet have an inflectional |s|, you must add one upon inflection — for either inflection, but not both.
Some varieties of non-standard speech ignore that and actually add two |s| inflections, but standard speech does not. That is why Gollum’s rustic fisheses gets mocked. You may also find people talking about the farmerses houses and such. But that is all non-standard speech, and would be surpassingly rare in writing, being restricted to the reported speech of non-standard speakers. Gollum!
Inflecting your boss on his backside
Back to your boss.
You want to inflect your boss? Fine. You do it the same way for both types of inflection. The plural inflection gets an |s| or the possessive inflection gets an |s|. Doesn’t matter which, and they sound precisely alike. That means that you get bosses for the plural and boss’s for the possessive, and that those are homophones.
But you cannot add a second inflectional |s| to bosses when you make a possessive of them. It is blocked in speech. Since no extra |s| gets sounded, no extra “s” gets written.
Now in writing, we must use still the apostrophe to indicate it is a possessive form, which we do no matter how it sounds.
But because apostrophes are silent — they’re punctuation that is never pronounced — you hear nothing different when you say the possessive plural bosses’. It sounds just like boss’s and bosses both also sound.
You’ll find that this answers every “how do I spell the possessive” question you could possibly have, like saying that if it wanted to, Texas could break up into five little Texases, or that the capital of Texas’s original name was Waterloo.
It’s all about pronunciation. If it is pronounced, it is written, and this law has no exceptions.
The Bees’ Knees
Besides the no-double-inflections phonologic law, there’s another odd phonologic law that can block inflectional |s| in speech in a very few rare words.
It is this: Words ending in unstressed /i:z/ also (normally) suppress adding any |s| inflection.
Note very carefully that it blocks any type of inflectional |s|, not just the possessive one but the plural one as well. Of course it can’t block the mandatory written apostrophe that all possessives possess, but that has nothing to do with speech, just writing.
That’s why words like series and species are invariant in the plural: the presence of a final unstressed /i:z/ in those blocks an inflectional |s| — any inflectional |s|, doesn’t matter which. It doesn’t matter whether the inflection is for making a plural from a singular, or a possessive from a singular, or a possessive from a plural. It’s still always blocked.
But if you are making a possessive from them, you write the apostrophe to indicate that it’s a possessive; you just don’t say them any differently. The end of this series is this series’ end, while the ends of these series are these series’ ends. All homophones, of course.
See how that works?
But those are extremely rare cases. One doesn’t usually come across three Socrates seated together either, but if one did, that’s how one would say it. It’s also why with even just one Socrates involved, Socrates’ possessions are also written that way. None of these are exceptions to the sound law. If they were, it wouldn’t be a law.
Paying the duty on alien imports
There are a few alien imports from non-English languages, virtually all French, that despite their spelling, do or do not have a final /s/ sound as one might expect if they were pronounced according to the rules of English.
As always, just go with the sound, not the spelling, which doesn’t ever matter:
- François’s surname is Mitterand
- Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus
- Bordeaux’s best wine
- that plateau’s top but those plateaux’ tops — or better, those plateaus’ tops
- this Grand Prix’s prize
- all those Grand Prix’s prizes
Those are not exceptions. They are all following the sound law.