“Hazel and I’s Puppy. The. Cutest. Ever.”
In editing formal prose, we fix nonstandard English without hesitation. But in editing creative works, we often need to throw out the stylebook so a narrator or character in a novel or play can abuse grammar to good effect. The guideline is “believability”: would a character naturally use such a phrase, or would they speak more formally?
Creative writers toss in stock phrases like “he ain’t” or “I seen” to reveal something about a character’s education level or to show a preference for slang or dialect. Most writers can intuit immediately whether a character would naturally say “he ain’t” in a given situation. And most editors wouldn’t dream of standardizing it in those situations.
But the possessive “Hazel and I’s” is a little trickier, in that all kinds of people use it, even highly educated folks who wouldn’t dream of writing it in a job application or company report and rarely use expressions like “he ain’t” or “I seen” in conversation.* For that matter, when it comes to compound possessives, how many of us even know what’s technically correct? Hazel and my puppy? Hazel’s and my puppy? Hazel and my’s puppy? Her and my? Hers and my? All those constructions are as believable as “Hazel and I’s” in quoted conversation, among all kinds of characters.† But “Hazel and I’s” may sound best to people who think “me” sounds wrong in any compound. That is, it’s probably a hypercorrection—like using “whom” when “who” is actually correct.
Recently I saw the possessive “I’s” in the New York Times, where actor Elisabeth Moss was quoted referring to “Gayle and I’s journey into the music.” The interview was styled as a Q&A, where direct quotations appear without quotation marks like dialogue in a play (brackets were as shown):
I know there was a syllabus, as well as an email chain of reference points. Was there anything in particular that grabbed you?
I think for me, watching a lot of old backstage, behind-the-scenes documentaries, just trying to get a feeling for that time. I was looking for something that I could emotionally connect to and feel that anger and that passion. [Agyness Deyn, who co-stars as Moss’s bandmate] was really instrumental in Gayle [Rankin, who rounds out the trio] and I’s journey into the music.
Newspaper guidelines normally don’t allow the editing of real-life quotations.‡ To eliminate iffy grammar from a Q&A, an editor can either (a) not use that line or (b) substitute different wording inside square brackets.
My point: If the New York Times is OK with quoting the possessive “I’s” in real-life dialogue from an educated, articulate speaker, then an editor of creative writing needn’t blink more than twice at it in a novel or short story. In current parlance, “Hazel and I’s puppy” will ring true in a wide variety of characters.
And in children’s literature? Should we model standard English in creative works for the little dears? Absolutely not. In fiction, poetry, and plays, children deserve the same respect for character and the same opportunity to lose oneself in believable dialogue that writers give to adult readers. Especially in works for young adults, the trick is to keep language fresh and real. Editors can help by flagging outdated or anachronistic expressions and limiting slang that teens might cringe at next year.
* You haven’t heard this usage? My informal Twitter poll showed that 35 percent of my 414 closest friends occasionally hear “and I’s” used in this way, and 16 percent find it “pretty common.” At Facebook 61% of 273 voters said “Yes,” they hear it. You’ll probably hear it now that you’re aware of it.
† If you want to be grammatical—which is not the point of this post—“our puppy,” “the puppy she and I own,” and (per CMOS 5.22, “Joint and Separate Genitives”) “Hazel’s and my puppy” are all good solutions. “Her and my puppy,” while not incorrect, is ambiguous, since “her” can read as a nonpossessive objective—kind of like the “me” in “me and my shadow.” “Hazel and my puppy” doesn’t work for similar reasons; save it for two noun subjects: “Hazel and my puppy were the two best things to hit Centerville that year.” “Hers and my puppy” is flat-out incorrect. (We don’t write “hers puppy”; “hers” must follow a noun: “the puppy is hers,” “the puppy is mine and hers.”) When no pronouns are involved, a phrase like “Hazel and Azusa’s puppy” may be used with caution anywhere it won’t read as two items: “Hazel and Azusa’s puppy [one item] was a hit.” “My best friend adored [item 1] Hazel and [item 2] Azusa’s puppy.” Making both names possessive is normally reserved for separate rather than joint ownership: “Hazel’s and Azusa’s SAT scores.”
‡ In regular reporting (not a Q&A) it would be easy to paraphrase that line to avoid bracketed explanations and pluck out the pronoun: e.g., “Moss added that Agyness Deyn, who co-stars as Moss’s bandmate, was instrumental in guiding Moss and third bandmate Gayle Rankin’s journey into the music.”
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
~ ~ ~
Photo of Old English Sheepdog by Meredith Bannan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.