Suppose you wanted to place a possessive apostrophe in this sentence: Billy, who goes to my school, favorite game is tag.

I know it's not standard, but I can hear kids (or older) saying an s sound after "school" to make the possession clear.
So I'd like to know if this could be written in the way that it's spoken (albeit not spoken in standard English).

Obviously, the sentence could be reworded, but that's not what I'm after.

  • 4
    I can confirm that in spoken word the sound of 's comes after the phrase. I don't have any authority on this area of English but I would probably write the sentence as "Billy (who goes to my school)'s favorite game is tag." – MrHen Feb 13 '12 at 5:00
  • I hadn't thought of parentheses. I think this is the best looking and easiest to read. Thanks! (If you put it as an answer, I will check it.) – Julia Feb 13 '12 at 23:50
  • Answer added below. – MrHen Feb 13 '12 at 23:52
  • I think that there is enough content to justify two sentences (or equivalent) rather than one anyway: Billy is a lad at our school; his favourite game is tag. // There is a lad called Billy at our school whose favourite game is tag.// There is a lad called Billy at our school. His favourite game is tag. In this case at least, I think the reduced format is less appropriate. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 '12 at 22:56

I can confirm that in spoken word the sound of 's comes after the phrase. I don't have any authority on this area of English but I would probably write the sentence as "Billy (who goes to my school)'s favorite game is tag."


I take it to be a grammatical utterance, and if it is, then there's no reason why it can't be written down. On the other hand, although this particular construction isn't considered in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, other statements there would suggest it's not grammatical.

In English, the 's marks a whole noun phrase (NP) as genitive, not just to the noun, and "the apostrophe occurs as a case marker on the last word of genitive NPs" (CGEL, p. 1763). A very clear example of this is when an adjective functioning as a modifier follows the noun, as in poet laureate. The speech given by such a person is the poet laureate's speech, not *the poet's laureate speech.

Let's take, for the moment, the example the kid who goes to my school. This is like the poet laureate in that it's an NP with the modifier following the head noun. The only difference is that this time the modifier is an integrated relative clause instead of an adjective. Still, the 's attaches at the end of the whole NP.

In your example, though, the relative clause is supplementary rather than integrated. According to CGEL, NPs like Billy constitute the NP by themselves, "but the supplementary relatives do not combine with them to form larger NPs. We suggest in Ch. 15, §5.1 that the antecedent + relative clause here is a special case of a supplementation construction, which is distinct from a head + dependent construction. The supplement is in construction with an anchor (in this case the antecedent), but does not combine with it to form a syntactic constituent" (CGEL, p. 1058).

If the supplementary relative is not part of the NP, then placing the apostrophe after it would contradict the claim on p. 1763. In this case, though, I think CGEL has it wrong.

[Update: After consulting a number of people, including the authors of CGEL, I haven't been able to find much support for the idea that this is grammatical. It seems like it's something somebody might say to get out of a syntactic bind, but the people that I've asked about it all judge it to be ungrammatical.]

It does, however, raise the question of comma placement. It seems very odd to write, school,'s but I don't see a better solution. The question, though, is just 'can you write it,' not 'how would you write it,' so I'll leave it there.

  • Thanks for the thorough answer. I agree, though, that it seems very odd to write a comma followed by an apostrophe, so I'm not convinced this is correct. (I may have to accept that there's not really a correct way.) – Julia Feb 13 '12 at 23:45

There is a compromise between completely rewriting the sentence and adding an 's in the "wrong" place. Just replace the 's with the genitive pronoun (his in this case):

Billy, who goes to my school, his favourite game is tag.

This form is also common in conversational English, and it certainly looks better in writing than ,'s.

Have you tried asking at https://writers.stackexchange.com/?

  • I wonder, though, about this construction since one can't say "Billy his favorite game is tag". – Julia Feb 13 '12 at 23:51
  • @Julia Nor can one say "Billy, who goes to my school, 's favourite game is tag." And yet they do! It's a compromise, not a perfect solution. – Pitarou Feb 14 '12 at 3:10

The question specifically asks for no rephrasing.

The only way I can think of doing this is to use a slightly nonstandard, but still correct, form of punctuation:

Billy-who-goes-to-my-school's favorite game is tag.

This changes the subject from Billy, who happens to go to your school, into an actual subject phrase. With this done, there is no problem with the possessive looking out of place.

This forms a balance between something that is entirely grammatical as written and something that is actually spoken.

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