Even Very Good Writers Get Confused!

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There are two mis­takes I see so com­monly in writ­ing — even in the writ­ing of very good writ­ers! — so I’d like to try to help sort them out. They have to do with mak­ing “peo­ple” and “each other” possessive.

The ten­dency is to write “peo­ples’ ” and “each oth­ers’.” For example:

1. Many peo­ples’ tal­ents are kept hid­den due to mod­esty. (wrong)

2. We glanced at each oth­ers’ out­fits and laughed to dis­cover we looked like twins. (wrong)

The think­ing (I think) in a writer’s mind is that we’re deal­ing with plu­rals so we need the typ­i­cal way of mak­ing a plural pos­ses­sive — which is, most often, adding an apos­tro­phe after an already-present “s.” The mis­take, how­ever, comes in treat­ing “peo­ple” and “each other” as sin­gu­lar, adding the “s” for the plural, and then adding the apos­tro­phe for the possessive.

Since “peo­ple” is already plural (just like “men,” “women,” and “chil­dren”), you need to add an “apostrophe-s,” NOT an “s-apostrophe.” The cor­rect form for sen­tence #1 is “people’s.” (Don’t be fooled by the other, though less com­mon, use of “peo­ples” as the plural form, indi­cat­ing sev­eral dis­tinct group­ings, nation­al­i­ties, or cul­tures of peo­ple, in which case the “s-apostrophe” (adding just an apos­tro­phe where the “s” is already present) would indeed be cor­rect: The Native Amer­i­can peo­ples’ cul­tures are so fascinating.

Now, as for mak­ing “each other” pos­ses­sive: The think­ing (I think) is that “each” is sin­gu­lar — and indeed it is. That’s why we say Each of the bats has a crack in it, NOT Each of the bats have a crack in it (nor, as is some­times seen, “in them”); since “each” is a sin­gu­lar sub­ject, the verb must match and be sin­gu­lar as well. But when “each other” is used, we are actu­ally talk­ing about two indi­vid­u­als, so it’s already a plural. No addi­tional “s” is needed to make it plural before adding the apos­tro­phe to make it pos­ses­sive. Instead, we add “apostrophe-s” as we would to any plural word not end­ing in “s” (like, again, “men,” “women,” “chil­dren,” which are made pos­ses­sive as “men’s,” “women’s,” “children’s” — never mind the fact that signs in most depart­ment stores leave off the apostrophes).

The cor­rected sen­tences then read as fol­lows:
3. Many people’s tal­ents are kept hid­den due to mod­esty. (right)

4. We glanced at each other’s out­fits and laughed to dis­cover we looked like twins. (right)

(I’m sure it only adds to the con­fu­sion when pro­grams like MS Word show “other’s” as a spelling error. Pay no atten­tion! — the soft­ware is wrong!! — doubt­less designed by peo­ple very tal­ented in mat­ters tech­ni­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal but not in mat­ters gram­mat­i­cal!)

I hope this expla­na­tion helps. Let me know if the usage is still not clear or if you have other spe­cific gram­mar ques­tions I can assist with.

4 Responses

  1. Timotheus Says:

    Con­cern­ing “each other’s” or “each oth­ers’”, what about when not just two peo­ple are being con­sid­ered, but a group of peo­ple? For example,

    All the meet­ing atten­dees shook each oth­ers’ hands as they entered the room.

    Is that cor­rect? Thanks.

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  2. Heidi Mann Says:

    Thanks for writ­ing! And what a great ques­tion! I would still hold firm and say it would be “each other’s” because if you weren’t deal­ing with a pos­ses­sive but were just mak­ing a state­ment such as, “They all saw each other at the meet­ing,” there would be no “s” at the end of “other.” Like other plu­rals that are irreg­u­lar — think of “men,” “oxen,” “sheep,” etc. — to make the plural into a pos­ses­sive plural, we don’t add “s-apostrophe”; we add “apostrophe-s.” So we have “men’s cloth­ing,” “the oxen’s yoke,” “the sheep’s pen,” and “each other’s gifts.”

    Addi­tion­ally, the Chicago Man­ual of Style (one of my go-to resources when I want to double-check some­thing) states the fol­low­ing at 5.220: “each other; one another. Tra­di­tion­al­ists use each other when two things or peo­ple are involved, one another when more than two are involved.” So, writ­ers and edi­tors who would be nit-picky would not opt to use “each other” in regard to a group of more than two. Of course, not every­one wor­ries about being quite that pre­cise!

    Again, thanks for your post! Hope to hear from you again! 🙂
    –Heidi

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  3. Alice Fusco Says:

    Great arti­cle! You clever lass! As for that chap’s com­ments — I agree; the entire sen­tence should be changed.

    How about:

    All the meet­ing atten­dees shook hands as they entered the room.”

    Or:

    Each meet­ing attendee shared a hand­shake upon enter­ing the room.”

    Mind you, I’m not very good at gram­mar! Still learn­ing here…

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  4. Heidi Mann Says:

    Alice, I like your first sug­ges­tion! Thanks for post­ing! ~Heidi

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