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Which of these sentences is correct: "The clock under the curtains' hour hand broke off", or "The clock under the curtains's hour hand broke off"? The actual thing being made possessive, "The clock under the curtains," is singular, suggesting that you should add 's to the entire phrase to make it possessive. This would make the latter sentence correct, but it looks funny to me. Of course you don't add 's to a plural noun already ending in "s" in order to make it possessive, but what do you do if the possessive noun phrase itself is singular but it ends in a plural noun?

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    Syntactically, the possessive "'s" is applied to a single word, not to a phrase. Consider rephrasing. E.g. *The hour hand of the clock under the curtain broke off." Also consider splitting the sentence into simpler sentences to avoid the buffalo effect. – Lawrence Dec 13 '16 at 2:05
  • @Lawrence How is this sentence an example of the buffalo effect? I thought that the buffalo effect comes from using two (or more) different meanings of the same word in the same sentence. – tparker Dec 13 '16 at 2:10
  • You should rearrange the sentence as @Lawrence suggested, so you can avoid the awkwardness and ungrammaticality of trying to affix the 's on a phrase. I also don't see what the famous buffalo sentence has to do with this sentence, though. – Katherine Lockwood Dec 13 '16 at 2:24
  • @KatherineLockwood I agree that my sentence is awkward and would be better off rephrased, but in principle one of these two options should be grammatically correct (albeit awkward), right? Which one? – tparker Dec 13 '16 at 2:35
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    @tparker Perhaps I should have used the term garden path instead. It's not very pronounced with just a few nouns, but even here your original sentence appeared to attach the hour hand to the curtains. Extending the noun phrase distances the word hand from the word clock. If you need to describe the location of the clock in even more detail, it might be clearer to do so separately - e.g. There was a clock in the woods, hung in a pretty cottage under a set of curtains. Its hour hand broke off ..., vs The clock under the woods' pretty cottage's curtains('s) hour hand broke off .... – Lawrence Dec 13 '16 at 5:48
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The rule is that you write what you say. This is a purely phonologic law.

And you say:

The clock under the curtains’ hour hand broke off.

Therefore, that is what you write. Nobody ever ever says curtainses, so you mustn’t ever write something that says that (like curtains’s). It’s curtain’s for one and curtains’ for more than one.

In writing you can convey the difference between one curtain and several, but not in speaking. If there were just one curtain you would write:

The clock under the curtain’s hour hand broke off.

  • Unless the clock is under a single curtain, though--wouldn't you then write "The clock under the curtain's hour hand broke off"? – Katherine Lockwood Dec 13 '16 at 2:39
  • @KatherineLockwood Yep! – tchrist Dec 13 '16 at 3:42
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The curtain does not possess the clock. Any sentence with an apostrophe indicating possession by the curtain is wrong. Rewriting the sentence as recommended above is correct. However it is possible to have multiple possessives such as Aunt Betty's brother's car or if multiple brothers then Aunt Betty's brothers' cars.

More specific to the POp's question: you follow the same rules as other possessive.

The eye of the tiger's gaze. one eye, one tiger, one gaze

The eyes of the tiger's gaze. multiple eyes, one tiger, one gaze

The eyes of the tigers' gaze multiple eyes, multiple tigers, one gaze--as if a pack singly staring down a prey

The eyes of the tigers' gazes. multiple eyes, multiple tigers, multiple gazes

The eye of the tigers' gaze. single eye, multiple tigers, singular gaze as if the pack was staring as one

The eye of the tigers' gazes. multiple tigers, multiple gazes, but with a singular purpose

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    This answer is wrong. You have misunderstood the Saxon Genitive: it goes on the end of the noun phrase as a clitic, just as the Queen of England’s hat goes on the Queen of England’s head. Notice how it is the Queen’s hat and head rather than England’s hat and head under discussion, but it remains the Queen of England’s hat and head nonetheless. This is completely normal: it’s how English works. I strongly recommend removing your incorrect answer. – tchrist Dec 13 '16 at 5:08
  • This doesn't appear to be genitive case to me. However, if it's something I haven't been exposed to as an American, my bad. Your "Queen of England" example has nothing to do with my answer. – Stu W Dec 13 '16 at 6:26
  • @tchrist Is part of the problem with the original that it is difficult to separate out the elements of the noun phrase? This is in contrast to The Queen of England's hat because the title is capitalised. The same thing would apply to titles ending in plurals like The Lord of the Isles's sword or The Chief of the Commanches's bow. I would add the possessive s in these cases because, although there are many Isles and many Commanches there is only one Lord and only one Chief. – BoldBen Dec 13 '16 at 7:22
  • Of course, I totally agree these are possessives. As well as the genitive three hours' time – Stu W Dec 13 '16 at 15:12

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