I'm having a hard time finding out what the grammar is when we want to use "or" and possessive. If, for example, I want to refer to the information of a person or an organization, do I say, "that person or organization's information," or, "that person's or organization's information."


Please collect that person or organization's information on the appropriate form.


Please collect that person's or organization's information on the appropriate form.

I have looked and looked on the internet at various grammar sites. There are plenty that address the situation when there's a compound possession (i.e., when "and" is used), but none I can find that address the situation when it's not but rather is the possession of one or the other.

On this site, I felt hope when I found the following question:

Using possessive apostrophe with "or"

But then I saw it was wrongly closed as off-topic, saying it should be for the English Learner's site. I'm not an English Learner. It's a legitimate question.

Now, that question does offer one answer, but that answer is obviously wrong because it calls "John or Mary" a noun phrase, which is a phrase that serves as a noun, when it is not a noun phrase but is two distinct nouns conjoined by "or."

When we say "John and Mary's," that's compound possession, which indicates that John and Mary collectively share whatever it is, but when we say "John's and Mary's" that's not compound possession as it indicates that John and Mary each own the ensuing noun, so if the ensuing noun were "information," then it would refer to John's information and Mary's information, like John's address and Mary's address, which may not be the same.

From this, we know that the presence of a conjunction doesn't necessarily indicate compound possession, and when the conjunction is "or," it certainly seems that it wouldn't because "or" specifically indicates one or the other and not both, but therein lies the rub because it makes sense in my head to say "John's or Mary's" or "that person's or organization's," but what sounds right to my ear is "John or Mary's" and "that person or organization's," which is why I'm seeking an answer, an answer I haven't been able to find and hope someone here can definitively provide with some grammar source material that specifically addresses the possessive case with "or" rather than only addressing "and."

  • 2
    I don’t see why calling John or Mary a noun phrase makes tchrist’s answer “obviously wrong”. John or Mary is a noun phrase, or at least it can be. Just as is the case with John and Mary, it can also be two NPs. What you call ‘compound possession’ is basically just the possessive clitic attaching itself to a NP containing a coordinator; the opposite is two clitics attaching themselves to two separate, coordinated NPs. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 11:29
  • 1
    Yes, it does. You even go so far as to concede that "John or Mary" merely "can be" a noun phrase, meaning it isn't necessarily, but tchrist didn't say it "can be" but that it was and based his answer on the fact that it only was and never wasn't, which is obviously wrong, even to you. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 11:59
  • 1
    Yes, I agree that the “must be” part of tchrist’s answer is not right – there’s no must about it. I hadn’t read the wording in the other question carefully enough. The paragraph in your question here does the opposite, though, categorically stating that John or Mary is not a NP. I’d suggest editing that paragraph to more accurately reflect that the real issue is that tchrist’s answer is too one-sided; I didn’t downvote here, but I suspect that paragraph is probably part of the reason for the downvotes you’ve received. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 12:11
  • 1
    If you'd read carefully tchrist's answer, instead of categorizing it as obviously wrong, possibly you'd have noticed a very important word there: optionality, that is, not to imply optionality. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 15:27
  • 2
    Do not use the apostrophe, use the of form and show due consideration to the poor reader. " I want to refer to the information of a person or of an organization" -- why spoil a perfectly formed structure?
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 7:06

2 Answers 2


The Punctuation Guide, which draws its rules from APA and the Chicago Manual of Style, distinguishes between joint or shared possession and individual possession. In joint possession, only one 's appears at the end, since both of them possess the same thing together. In individual possession, 's is used before each noun phrase, to indicate that each person separately possess at least one of the things.

We were at Stanley and Scarlett’s house. (shared possession: Stanley's house and Scarlett's house is the same house)

France’s and Italy’s domestic policies are diverging. (individual possession: France's policies are not the same as Italy's policies.)

Both these examples (and the others) use and. However, the same logic should apply to other conjunctions. Attend to this usage in the explanatory text on the same page:

You should, of course, observe your publisher’s or instructor’s requirements.

In this case, the publisher may have different requirements than the instructor's. They are not the same. This is an example of individual possession, just like what showed up before. The Chicago Manual of Style, 7.23: Joint versus separate possession also includes an example of discrete possession with or:

Gilbert’s or Sullivan’s mustache

In general, it is hard to imagine an example of shared possession involving or. Outside of logic, or is almost always disjunctive and exclusive (see, e.g., Legal Beagle for an explanation). That would suggest the resulting possessive must be individual.

That said, not everyone follows Chicago, APA, or a website called The Punctuation Guide. In the wild, usage involving individual possession nonetheless may only put the noun phrase after the conjunction in the possessive case (Jason Nice, Sacred History and National Identity, 2009):

Recent scholarship has focused upon France or England's ethnic and/or political origins ...

France and England have different ethnic and political origins, right? Nonetheless, the author and the editor(s) permitted "France or England's." So while the logic in Chicago and others may be sound, outside the confines of a style guide, actual published usage varies. Usage books may bemoan using only one 's for an individual possessive (for example, Bryan Garner spends three paragraphs pointing out errors in possessives involving and in Garner's Modern English Usage, 2009, p. 713), but whenever a usage guide can complain about a phenomenon for three paragraphs, that means the practice is widespread. Make your own decision on whether that is appropriate.

  • 2
    Thank you for your answer. Insightful. You were able to find way more on it than I was, which must've taken some doing. I went through all your sources, and I agree with your assessment that whenever a guide goes on at any length complaining about a usage, it indicates a certain level of prevalence. Since English is descriptive rather than prescriptive, their complaint actually bolsters the grammaticality of what they're complaining about. I suppose if I don't want to be faulted, I'll use an 's after each, but otherwise, I'll go with what sounds right and do an 's after just the second. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 5:51
  • This (esp. the outside maths or is usually exclusive) agrees with my (admittedly layman's) thoughts. Re. "France or England's": I've not read it, but if Jason is talking about those origins that are shared between France and England (presumably as a result of the Normal invasion), then that possibly could warrant a single 's (although "France and England's shared..." might be better).
    – TripeHound
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 13:20
  • I agree with most of this. +1. Just on the inclusive 'or', it's not that uncommon in everyday language. e.g. If your mother('s) or father's eyes are brown, yours will be too. Reduced fee for the unemployed or retired.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 13:03

Whether to say:

Is it John or Jane's car? [1A]


Is it John's or Jane's car? [1B]

is the same question as:

Is it the car of John or Jane? [2A]


Is it the car of John or of Jane? [2B]

The possible ambiguity in [A] sentences is usually resolved in speech by pausing (almost 'John, or Jane') but inserting a comma in writing leaves a different ambiguity - as if we're confused whether a thing is John himself, or Jane's car.

It is correct and resolves any ambiguity to repeat the preposition per [2B], which contracts to repeated apostrophes in [1B].

[B] is apparently referred to as 'parallel structure', and avoids the issue of 'syllepsis' in [A] sentences.

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.