Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Obsessive Possessive

Proof that the rules of grammar can change quickly. We remember learning the possessives rule this letter writer refers to:

Passion Over The Possessive


June 12 2007

Q: Whatever happened to the rule of punctuation that a singular noun ending in the letter "s" is made possessive by simply adding an apostrophe, not an apostrophe and an "s," e.g. "James'" not "James's"? Everywhere, I see the latter. Has that rule changed?

- John Anderson, Dayton, Tenn.

A: It's appropriate that this question comes from Dayton, site of the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. For the punctuation battle between the Add-the-"s" Crowd and the Drop-the-"s" Gang has acquired the intensity of that classic confrontation between the Creationists and Evolutionists.

Like Mr. Anderson, I was taught to form the possessive of a singular noun ending in "s" by simply adding an apostrophe - no additional "s" needed. Of course, I was also taught that there were nine planets and getting a bad sunburn was a harmless rite of summer.

But omitting the second "s" in singular possessives ending in "s" seems to have gone the way of hula hoops, station wagons and poodle skirts. More and more writers and editors now favor the double "s." A random sampling of recently published books yields "Congress's move," "bus's route," "boss's memo."

One holdout group has always been - wouldn't you know it? - journalists. Until recently, the Associated Press Stylebook recommended using only the apostrophe to form the possessive of a singular word ending in "s," presumably to save time, space and ink.

But the 2002 edition of the A.P. Stylebook joined the crowd. It acceded to the demand that an additional "s" be added to singular nouns ("witness's answer"), but held out for a single "s" if the noun was a name ("James' book") or was followed by a word beginning with "s" ("witness' story").

It's worth noting that, by convention, almost all publications, including newspapers, books and magazines, have always allowed a single "s" for possessives in four categories:

1. personal pronouns ("yours," "theirs"); 2. corporate or national names formed from a plural word ("General Dynamics' employees," "United States' policies"); 3. possessive nouns ending in an "s" sound used before the word "sake" ("for goodness' sake," for appearance's sake"); 4. biblical or classical names ending with a "zes" or "eez" sound ("Jesus' teachings," "Xerxes' leadership").

Follow these rules, and be good for goodness' sake!

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