Legistics
Possessives

Legistics est un recueil d’articles portant exclusivement sur les questions de rédaction en anglais des textes législatifs. La nature même de l’ouvrage fait en sorte qu’il n’est offert qu’en anglais.

Introduction

Legislative counsel have traditionally been reluctant to use the "'s" form of the possessive (e.g., "in the Minister's opinion") in the English version of legislative texts; they have generally preferred the "of" form (e.g., "in the opinion of the Minister"). However, the "'s" form may often be the better choice from the point of view of the readability and ease of use of the text: besides being shorter, it is the most frequent option in everyday English. The "'s" form is not slang or substandard English. It has been in the language for hundreds of years, surviving from the time when English nouns had case endings, like Latin.

Recommendation

Drafters should not be reluctant to use the "'s" form of the possessive, or the possessive pronouns "its", "his or her" and "their" (see the article Gender-neutral Language), when appropriate. The examples that follow should help legislative counsel decide when one of these choices is appropriate, and at times the criterion will simply be what constitutes idiomatic English (for example, "the arrest of the suspect" can be redrafted as "the suspect's arrest", but "member of Parliament" cannot be redrafted as "Parliament's member"). Legislative counsel who wish to obtain more information on the subject are invited to consult the sources listed at the end of this article.

Discussion and examples

1.  Use of the "'s" form instead of the "of" form to indicate possession

In addition to the general considerations noted above, the "'s" form of the possessive may be preferable to the "of" form for a number of reasons:

(a) To avoid ambiguity:

write

For greater certainty, a candidate's representative who is present at a polling station is not an election officer.

avoid

For greater certainty, a representative of a candidate who is present at a polling station is not an election officer.

(b) To avoid repeating "of" several times:

write

"appropriate provincial minister", in relation to a provincial institution, means the minister of the Crown of the institution's province of incorporation who is responsible for the institution's supervision.

avoid

"appropriate provincial minister", in relation to a provincial institution, means the minister of the Crown of the province of incorporation of the institution responsible for the supervision of the provincial institution.

(c) To avoid breaking up elements that belong together:

write

No action may be taken against the Corporation in respect of the Corporation's obligation to make a payment in relation to a deposit held by a member institution that is being wound up.

avoid

No action may be taken against the Corporation in respect of the obligation of the Corporation to make a payment in relation to a deposit held by a member  institution that is being wound up.

Because "to make a payment" relates to "obligation", the provision reads more naturally when these two elements are not separated.

(d) To put new or complex information in final position:

There is a general tendency in English to place new information and relatively more complex information at the end of a sentence. Using the "'s" form may be advisable if it achieves one of these aims and therefore makes the sentence read more naturally:

write

The Commissioner is the chief executive officer of the Agency and is responsible for the Agency's [old information][1] management [new information].

avoid

The Commissioner is the chief executive officer of the Agency and is responsible for the management [new information] of the Agency [old information].

write

The Board is responsible for the management of the Agency's [simpler information] resources, services, property, personnel and contracts [more complex information].

avoid

The Board is responsible for the management of the resources, services, property, personnel and contracts [more complex information] of the Agency [simpler information].

2.  The possessive pronouns "its", "his or her", and "their"

In the first example provided under 1(d), the expression "the Agency's" could have been replaced by the pronoun "its". As noted above, the second mention of "the Agency" is old information, and the role of pronouns is generally to represent old information:

The Commissioner is the chief executive officer of the Agency and is responsible for its management.
A candidate shall, within three months after polling day, send to his or her official agent a written statement in the prescribed form that sets out the amount of any personal expenses that he or she paid and details of those personal expenses, including documentation of their payment.

3.  Use of the "'s" form with collective nouns and inanimate nouns

One question that can arise is whether the "'s" form can be used with collective nouns and inanimate nouns. The answer is yes with respect to collective nouns, especially if they denote organizations or other groups of living beings:

  • in the Board's absence
    (or "in the absence of the Board")
  • the partnership's registered office
    (or "the registered office of the partnership")
  • the herd's vaccination date
    (or "the vaccination date of the herd")

With respect to inanimate nouns, there is no single general rule. It is acceptable to write "in the absence of fraud", but not "in fraud's absence"; "the incidence of mortality", but not "mortality's incidence". However, one can say either "the vessel's condition" or "the condition of the vessel"; "the drug's effectiveness" or "the effectiveness of the drug"; "Canada's multiculturalism policy" or "the multiculturalism policy of Canada". The choice depends on what is idiomatic and appropriate in a given case.

4.  Use of the apostrophe in expressions of time and measurement

For a considerable period it was customary, in legislative texts, to omit the apostrophe after the "s" in certain plural expressions indicating time or measurement (e.g., two days notice, six months wages). The reasons for this departure from ordinary English practice are no longer clear, and there is now agreement that it should cease. Legislative counsel should therefore use the apostrophe in both singular and plural expressions of this type, as indicated in the following examples:

one day's notice
five days' notice
one month's wages
six months' wages
one year's experience
three years' experience
one dollar's worth
two dollars' worth

Sources:

  • Canada. Public Works and Government Services Canada. The Canadian Style. Toronto: Oxford, 1997.
  • Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G.K. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Partridge, Eric. Usage and Abusage. Third Edition. London: Penguin, 1995.
  • Quirk, R. et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman, 1985.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.

Footnotes

  • [1] Old information is not necessarily information already mentioned in the same sentence; it may be information previously mentioned in the discourse. Some works refer to it as "given information".

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