I try to avoid possessives in formal writing, but in some cases the brevity is necessary. With a plural possessive construction such as

the players' gloves

is it ambiguous grammatically whether this refers to either (a) a single pair of gloves owned by all of the players, or (b) the individual pair of gloves owned by each player?

Hopefully the reader would understand the meaning to be the latter, but it always nags me that there could be a misunderstanding here.

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    I certainly hope so! A pair of gloves owned by all members of a team is funny--I wouldn't worry about it. – Xanne Nov 10 '17 at 6:54
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    That applies to anything where a single item is stated as a plural noun, and doesn't have much to do with the apostrophe - e.g. "the children's shoes", could indicate that there was only one pair which was shared between five of them! – WS2 Nov 10 '17 at 6:54
  • @WS2 — Exactly! I'd like to think that it's not ambiguous, but it'd be nice to have a proper reference for this… – Will Robertson Nov 10 '17 at 7:01
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    Wait, why do you try to avoid possessives in formal writing? – ruakh Nov 10 '17 at 7:15

Context is the key here I think.

The context of your example would be enough to make ambiguity extremely unlikely. It's common knowledge that people have different size hands so we would assume that each player has his/her own gloves (though the assumption could be false in some cases).

More problematic would be, for example, the children's scissors - does it mean that each child has his/her own pair of scissors or that there is only one pair being used by all the children (or two pairs being used by four children etc). That kind of ambiguity can only be avoided by completely rephrasing the sentence.

  • That is a better example than mine, and you have answered my question about whether it is ambiguous. Thanks! – Will Robertson Nov 11 '17 at 9:31

This is nothing to do with possessives. It's to do with the fact that a single pair of gloves is a plural noun. Avoiding possessives would not help you.

You would have exactly the same issue with:

The gloves of the players

We don't know if that refers to a single pair of gloves or multiple pairs.

If you want avoid the problem you have to write

The players' pair of gloves


The players' pairs of gloves.

  • That's a nice way to resolve the ambiguity, thanks. – Will Robertson Nov 11 '17 at 9:30

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