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Of parrots, possessives and proper names

March 31, 2011

Pasadena is home to the world-famous Rose Parade, the Renoirs and Van Goghs of the Norton Simon Museum, and some of the loudest, most obnoxious wild green parrots ever to announce a new day to residents not yet ready to face it.

Sometimes the parrots perch in a tree near my house when I’m in late-morning REM sleep and start screeching. (If you’d like a sample of their skull-splitting morning howdy, search for “Pasadena parrots” on YouTube.) Sometimes they fly by in a group, screaming their heads off on their way to some other neighborhood — clever strategy for disturbing as many sleeping people as possible.

No one is sure where they came from. Some trace the cacophonous horde to a 1959 pet shop fire. Others say that’s an urban legend. Me, I suspect a plot by the neighboring city of Glendale, which surely must be jealous of all the attention we get from Bob Eubanks. (Paranoid? Perhaps. But, really, how can you not suspect evil genius of a town whose paper carries a weekly grammar column?)

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Mysteries like this are frustrating. It’s no fun to seek answers and not find them. That’s why I recently channeled some of my parrot-related frustration into solving a mystery I knew I could tackle: How to make possessives out of proper names that include a plural word.

I’m not talking about a plain-old plural proper name like Smiths. Nor am I talking about those proper names that in the singular end in S, like Thomas. I’m talking about proper names that end with a plural word, like the United States or the Forum Shops or the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Forming possessives out of these can be confusing because they don’t fit into the standard rules.

We all know that to make a regular singular word into a possessive, you just add apostrophe and S: the state’s legislators. To make a regular plural word into a possessive, you just add an apostrophe: the states’ legislators. But when the “states” is formalized as part of a name, as in United States, is it really a plural? Or is this a formal name for an individual thing, and therefore essentially singular?

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