'I figured I'd gotten off easy. Nope.'

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Recently I wrote in this space about the plural possessive of mother-in-law. That is, when Jane’s mother-in-law and Bob’s mother-in-law pitch in to buy a business, is it the mother-in-law’s business, the mother-in-laws’ business, the mother’s-in-law business, the mothers’-in-laws business or some other form? (And, yes, I know we could just rewrite to say it’s Carol and Barbara’s business. But the question we’re focused on is how to do it without a rewrite.)

I had considered talking about the example of “attorney general” instead of “mother-in-law” when I wrote that column. But I decided that “mother-in-law” was better. 1. The hyphens make it easier to see the term as a single unit, and 2. The plural of mother-in-law is more familiar than the plural of attorney general. 

I figured I’d gotten off easy. 

Nope.

“I’m not entirely convinced on the mothers-in-law’s,” reader Greg wrote. “Or perhaps I’m wrong on something else. If the attorney general of New York and the attorney general of New Jersey file lawsuits against a common defendant, is it the attorneys general’s lawsuits, or the attorneys’ general lawsuit? I would have said attorneys’ general, but now reading your article, you got me thinking it is similar to mothers-in-law’s and it should be attorneys general’s?”

That’s correct. It’s the attorneys general’s lawsuit. 

The question, of course, is why? 

The answer is easier to figure out than you think, provided you already know the plural of attorney general. So set aside the matter of possession and ask yourself: What’s the plural of attorney general? 

It’s attorneys general. Just as when you add one mother-in-law to another mother-in-law to get two mothers-in-law, the plural marker goes on the head noun: We met with both attorneys general.

Now set aside the matter of plurals and ask yourself: What’s the possessive of attorney general? That is, if one attorney general files a lawsuit, whose lawsuit is it? It’s the attorney general’s. 

The possessive marker goes on the second word. That’s true even though the plural marker goes on the first. So when those two guys team up for a legal action, it’s the attorneys general’s lawsuit. 

Another interesting email I got this week comes from reader Brad. 

“When using the word ‘text,’ what form is correct: 1. She text me last week, or 2. She texted me last week? I always use version 1 with the verb text acting similar to the verb cut. You wouldn’t say, ‘She cutted me.’” 

Rules for forming past tenses are in the dictionary. Which means you have to wait till a word is actually in the dictionary. “Text” as a verb is relatively new, so I was skeptical it would be in there yet. I was wrong. 

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s: “text; transitive verb; to send a text message from one cell phone to another; intransitive verb; to communicate by text messaging.” 

Compare that to Merriam’s entry for Brad’s example word: “cut; cut, cutting; transitive verb …”

You don’t need the rest of the definition. Everything you need to know to answer our “text” question appears in the entry for “cut” in the words “cut, cutting.” Why? Because the verb “text” did not have after it “text, texting.” 

That omission speaks volumes to anyone who’s privy to how dictionaries communicate past tense forms. 

As laid out in the “Explanatory Notes to the Dictionary” under the subheading “Inflected Forms,” the past and progressive forms of irregular verbs are listed immediately after the entry word. But when past tenses “are created in a manner considered regular in English” by adding “ed,” “the inflected form is not shown in order to save space.”

We know the past tense of cut isn’t cutted because the dictionary specifically says it’s cut. But we know the past tense of text is, in fact, texted because the dictionary says nothing about its past tense at all.

– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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