Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Possessive Prerogative - What to do when nouns end in S

Recycled glass, Pottery Barn. Assorted grosgrain ribbon, Chapters.

Singular nouns pronounced with an S or Z sound at the end are tricky because there are two schools of thought on possessive etiquette. Strunk and White's Elements of Style requires that one add apostrophe+s regardless of what the last letter is, such as "the dress's hem," "James's name," and "Jones's bones." This book has been my bible since 2004, though some argue that its rules are too rigid and well, old-school. The Chicago Manual of Style, among others, allows the usage of the apostrophe without the S as an alternative spelling, and it seems to be something of a trend. Since the latter doesn't completely contradict the former and merely offers both options as viable, I'd say go with the former, aka THE BIBLE.
In addition, Strunk and White cite classical/ancient/biblical proper names as exceptions to the rule (Jesus' Apostles, Achilles' heel) and expressions such as for goodness' sake. See? There is some wiggle room! To read their original and superior writing on this matter, click here.

WARNING: if you do decide to go with the traditional rule of 's for singular nouns and write  "Jones's bones," make sure you remember how that changes for plural possessives. Naturally, we would write "We dug up Percival Jones's bones," but what if we dug up poor Percival's entire family? "The Joneses' bones" is the way to go. By the same token, "the dress's hem" becomes "the dresses' hems."

One more thing. Although I'd love to be strict and crack my whip at any possessive infractions, I am surprisingly lenient when it comes to the plurals of decades (the 1980's) and letters (B's), because they're everywhere. Reputable news sources use them and I admit I often do the same, unless I'm in a self-righteous mood (whip in hand). 

I hope that this "rant" answered some of the questions posed by readers on Monday's post. I would also like to remind everyone that I don't judge others who lack my grammatical discipline and would be very upset indeed if people got offended and referred to me as some kind of dictator (b*tch sounds much more polite, thanks). I'm nice. And normal. I put my my pants on just like you, one leg at a time, and then I troll stores in search of inexpensive grosgrain ribbon for my collection, which I sometimes like to iron. Who doesn't like that?


Kristen said...

I always struggle with this. I often go with the Chicago Manual Style, because it's what I was taught in school, but I wonder if I'm doing it 'right' fairly often.

Thanks for posting this!

metaghost said...

I'm a Chicago Manual of Style kinda guy.

Which reminds me, I really hate when I (and others) write "kind've" when they mean to write "kind of". It's the most egregious of homonymic errors and makes me feel terrible every time I do it.

shealennon said...

You know, I always wondered about this. Thanks for the info--I hate making grammar errors that can be prevented! And apostrophes in dates bug the daylights out of me, but I didn't realize those were becoming more acceptable. Anyway, thanks for this :)

Miss Priss Morgan said...

Hooray! You're my hero!

Always Something said...

You make literally everything so interesting. Your style of writing is charming and friendly and funny, and makes me feel like you're telling me this instead of typing it!


Once again Miss Priss beat me to my own comment. ;) THANK YOU. Sincerely. Please look forward to props in six years or so when I include your blog in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation.

Tiffany said...

I did not realize that "for goodness' sake" should even include an apostrophe! You are so awesome at this grammar stuff. I prefer to think of you as the grammar fairy, come to bless us all with proper syntax.

Anonymous said...

the fact that your blog is logophilia, fashion, and linguistics/grammar basically makes you my new favorite person. just got to say it.

"daylights saving(s) time" makes me both cringe and laugh at the same time.

Elizabeth said...

Love this. The way I learned in school - and what makes the most sense to me - is that if you pronounce the S you should include it.


Mj. said...

This's a great lesson. Thank's for sharing it with you're fan's.

Ahahaha did that just make you want to cry?! I know I do! Great lesson, seriously. Your grammar class and your colorful, ladylike style are both so perfect.