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?

  • 1
    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, 2016 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, 2016 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. Dec 13, 2016 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, 2016 at 2:35
  • 1
    @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, 2016 at 5:48

4 Answers 4


I'm going to quote a comment that I think efficiently lays out some of the presuppositions that this question is based on, in order to express some disagreement with those presuppositions:

in principle one of these two options should be grammatically correct (albeit awkward), right? Which one?

It is not acceptable to add the -'s genitive (or "Saxon genitive") to all noun phrases, and in the contexts where it is acceptable, there is not always only one "correct" form. So I don't think it's right to assume that this is a binary question.

The paper The English “Group Genitive” is a Special Clitic", by Stephen R. Anderson, gives some examples of (single word) noun phrases where it is fairly clearly not acceptable to add -'s or -'.

(20) a. *These’s illustrations are more competently drawn than those’s.
b. *Of the books I lent you, two’s/some’s/many’s covers were soiled when you brought them back.

I think these examples establish that it is not impossible in principle for there to be no acceptable way of forming a -'s genitive from a particular noun phrase.

To address the specific noun phrase given in the question, I think that most speakers who tolerate the use of the -'s genitive with the noun phrase "The clock under the curtains" would pronounce the genitive construction no differently from the original noun phrase, which would support the spelling "The clock under the curtains' hour hand." Anderson brings up the topic of noun phrases ending in a word suffixed with /z/ that is not the head of the noun phrase: he says that Zwicky (1987) describes these as not taking an additional [z] sound, but Carstairs (1987) "claims that the sentences with two /z/s are often acceptable".

I would agree with tchrist's advice to "write what you say", if you use this construction at all (my preference would be to avoid using it). But overall, this is a rare construction, linguists don't give uniform descriptions of the usage, and it's simple enough to rephrase in formal contexts, so I don't see any point to being dogmatically prescriptive about there being a single "correct" usage in this context.


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.

  • 1
    Unless the clock is under a single curtain, though--wouldn't you then write "The clock under the curtain's hour hand broke off"? Dec 13, 2016 at 2:39
  • @KatherineLockwood Yep!
    – tchrist
    Dec 13, 2016 at 3:42
  • 2
    I'm not sure why this was downvoted – I don't think 'This is a purely phonologic law' has had its scope extended to possessives with nouns modified by prepositional phrases before on ELU. Then again, I'm not sure why this thread has resurfaced. But it's a chance to put The ring in its pocketses' powers are vast. Thankfully, non-standard. Jul 26, 2019 at 11:17

This is an awkward way to say this. "The clock's hour hand" should go together because it's a logical unit. When you put "below the curtains" in the middle, a reader could easily misread "the curtains' hour hand", which is risible.

It would be better to rephrase this to:

Under the curtains, the clock's hour hand broke off.

(Not sure if you actually meant "below" instead of "under".)


The clock under the curtains has its hour hand broken off.


The clock which is under the curtains has a broken hour hand.

or any such combination.

Grammatical correctness isn't everything. Writing, first and foremost, is communication. You should do it in such a way to minimise miscommunication.

  • 1
    Under the curtains, the clock ... is not at all the same thing as the clock under the curtains ... . Consider the similar sentences: The clock mounted on wheels' hour hand broke off, and Mounted on wheels, the clock's hour hand broke off. A better way of rephrasing it to avoid awkwardness is The hour hand of the clock under the curtains broke off. Jul 26, 2019 at 12:24
  • 1
    Your second and third sentences don't quite match the original, either, as broke off is an action and has a broken hour hand is a description. Jul 26, 2019 at 12:25

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

  • 1
    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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 7:22
  • Of course, I totally agree these are possessives. As well as the genitive three hours' time
    – Stu W
    Dec 13, 2016 at 15:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.