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A Word, Please: Universal challenge: possessives of singular nouns ending in S

July 11, 2013|By June Casagrande

I grew up in a family of people who had a lot to feel bad about. As the middle child, it was my job to make them feel better.

"Don't feel guilty about feeding us Twinkies for breakfast every day. When you think about it, they're basically rolled pancakes."

You get the idea.

Making people feel better about their shortcomings became part of my DNA. That explains a lot about my interest in grammar. Most people I meet feel uniquely inadequate in that arena — as though they happened to miss school on the one day everyone else got a comprehensive grammar education.

I tell them over and over: "You're not inadequate. Everyone's in the same boat."

Over time, I've gathered many bits of evidence to prove it. But none is more striking than the "correct" way to form possessives of singular nouns ending in S.

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Here, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, are three correct possessives: James's words, James' sake, James's seat.

Notice how one of those doesn't have an S after the apostrophe? Bizarre, right? It gets worse.

Here are correct possessives according to the AP Stylebook: James' words, James' sake, James' seat, the boss's words, the boss' sake, the boss' seat.

No those aren't typos. AP treats James in a manner different from Chicago. And, yes, some instances of boss have an apostrophe plus S while others have only the apostrophe. If you're looking for a logical pattern here, my advice is: Don't.

Of course, most people don't use these publishing guides. They rely instead on books like Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." So here, according to Strunk and White, are some correct possessives: James's words, James's sake, James's seat, Jesus' words, Jesus' sake, Jesus' seat.

From James to the boss to Jesus, there's not a single one of these examples — not one — on which all three guides agree.

In light of this utter chaos, is it any wonder that grammar can make even the smartest, most highly educated people feel like dolts? Clearly, the fault can't lie in the individual. It lies instead in crazy rules that seem bent on making people feel dumb.

The book publishing world prefers a system where the possessive form of most singular words ending in S takes an extra S after an apostrophe, but it makes an exception when the next word is "sake."

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