A Punctuation Question

When I was in elementary school I was taught that if you have a noun that ends in `s’, and you want to make that noun possessive, you do it by placing an apostrophe at the end of the word and that is all. Thus, in referring to the theorem proved by Thomas Bayes, you would write Bayes’ theorm. In referring to the book wirtten by Richard Dawkins, you would write Dawkins’ book.

Lately, though, several people have told me that this is not correct. Apparently we are now supposed to place an `apostrophe s’ at the end of all nouns, regardless of whether or not the word already ends in `s’. Thus, I would write Bayes’s theorem or Dawkins’s book. It would seem that if I want to refer to the beauty of the game of chess, I now have to write chess’s beauty, which rather creates the impression that the `s’ key is sticking.

Nonetheless, in matters punctuational I am most definitely a conformist. So if this is what I must do then so be it. What do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    April 26, 2008

    Phonetically, adding the extra s makes sense to me: you say something like “Bayeses” or “Dawkinses”. The compromise which pleases no one is to add the extra s when the word being modified ends in only one s, as in Bayes, but to use only an apostrophe when it ends in two, as in Gauss.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    April 26, 2008

    For more than you’d (probably) like to know on the issue, you can always search the archive of Language Log.

  3. #3 Kate
    April 26, 2008

    A close friend of mine recently got some harsh comments on this subject with regards to his thesis, so we turned to the sources. The Chicago Manual of Style endorses the way you learned, although I’m not sure whether they allow for an optional appendage of the extra ‘s’. I think Strunk & White may favor the other method.

    Anyway, as a descriptive linguist (props to the poster of the Language Log link!), both practices are both standard and, to my knowledge, about equally common. Also, there is no danger of ambiguity in choosing one over the other (people make the case about confusing the plain apostrophe singular possessive marking with the plural possessive marking, but no one is going to think that “Richard Dawkins’ book” ought to be interpreted with a plural noun possessor, so the objection is groundless in most cases). Therefore, you can use whichever one you like, and cite one of the conflicting opinions from grammar manuals in support.

  4. #4 John McKay
    April 26, 2008

    I’m an admitted punctuation Nazi and, as someone who has actually been employed as an editor, I occasionally get to dictate my preferences in these matters on other poor souls. The problem is, we have no equivalent to the French Academy in this country to act as the final authority on correct usage. All we have is the general consensus of influential individuals and there will always be an minority opinion that passionately disagrees with that consensus. Grammar is a lot like science that way.

    My opinion about possessives is that s’ is enough to convey the meaning. The biggest problem with slavishly applying ‘s to all possessives is the one you pointed out: in some cases it leads to a triple s and grammar Nazis of all stripes agree that the only place for triple letters in the English language is onomatopoeia and other sound effects.

    You can find stylebooks and other authorities to quote on both sides of this. So, write the way that feels best to you. Just be consistent.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    April 26, 2008

    Strunk and White:

    1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

    Charles’s friend
    Burns’s poems
    the witch’s malice

    Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’s, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Moses’ Laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by

    the laws of Moses
    the temple of Isis

  6. #6 Stuart Coleman
    April 26, 2008

    Well, they way I’ve always done it is s’ is for plural nouns, while s’s is for proper nouns that end in s (I’m not sure about normal nouns that end in s, though. I would guess s’s). So I’d say Dawkins’s, but also boxes’.

  7. #7 Alex, FCD
    April 26, 2008

    The Modern Language Association and my copy of Lunsford’s Easy Writer (3rd ed.) both prefer the “Dawkins’s book” approach. Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame) recommends a strange mixed-bag sort of approach. I believe she generally favors “Dawkins’s book”, with several exceptions, notably “Jesus’ sandals”.

    I personally prefer “Dawkins’ book” on aesthetic grounds, although my old English professor pointed out the “Keats’ poem” looks like it refers to a poem by more than one Keat.

  8. #8 Will TS
    April 26, 2008

    My longtime friend and English professor James Banks is faced with this problem much more than most. He believes that common usage should define the punctuation rules and that common usage (at least in the US) is shifting away from James’ and toward James’s. It might not be correct, but it is commonly understood, particularly in spoken English, where James and James’ are indistinguishable. I think James’s looks weird but sounds right.

  9. #9 RPM
    April 26, 2008

    There is no right way. Language is dictated my mores, not manuals. And, as you can see, there is no unanimous “right way”. Do whatever you want, just be consistent. Unless a journal editor or publisher tells you have to do it a certain way.

  10. #10 386sx
    April 26, 2008

    My opinion about possessives is that s’ is enough to convey the meaning.

    Yeah but that works for everything else too. Bob’s car, or Bob’ car. Bob’ car is plenty enough to convey the meaning thanks!

    The biggest problem with slavishly applying ‘s to all possessives is the one you pointed out: in some cases it leads to a triple s and grammar Nazis of all stripes agree that the only place for triple letters in the English language is onomatopoeia and other sound effects.

    Let’s see… Gauss’ car, or Gauss’s car. OMG the horror.

  11. #11 John S. Wilkins
    April 26, 2008

    Wilkins’ Law, also known as Wilkins’s Law, is “be consistent but on no account ever put the apostrophe before the first ‘s’!”

  12. #12 JuliaL
    April 26, 2008

    The problem was actually caused by prescriptions like those provided by Strunk and White, where the rule is phrased in terms of singular and plural. Trying to learn the possessive apostrophe use this way leads to numerous errors because of the large number of exceptions (one deer’s antlers, two deer’s antlers).

    It is simpler, and used to be entirely acceptable, to take an approach that ignores whether the noun is singular or plural:

    To make a noun possessive:

    If it ends in s, put an apostrophe after it.

    If it doesn’t end in s, put ‘s after it.

    But the far more complicated singular/plural rule with all its exceptions is indeed, primarily because of school handbooks, coming to be the way it’s done. And errors proliferate.

    Usually when there is uncertainty or a word just doesn’t look right, the “of” construction solves the problem. (The color of the glass is beautiful.)

  13. #13 Kurt
    April 26, 2008

    I would use a phonetic rule for determining what punctuation to use. If you add an extra “s” sound when saying the word, then add ‘s; otherwise just add ‘. So I would write “Use Bayes’ Theorem to calculate the probability,” but “Chess’s popularity has declined in the last decade.” (Now, if you actually say “Bayes’s Theorem” or “Dawkins’s book”, that’s a separate problem. I notice while writing this that the Mozilla spelling checker seems to agree with me.)

    But isn’t this the kind of question that your editor decides for you?

  14. #14 Don
    April 26, 2008

    Seems like the critical thing is what your editor says. Whatever he/she says will be how it is.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    April 26, 2008

    Don’s right. The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them.

    In writing as in law if you can pick from any possible precedent you can always find one you like.

    The editor’s job is to narrow the list of stylebooks — and make sure everyone’s working from the same few of them.

    Always helpful; they publish some answers to reader questions, clarify differences between different printings as well as different editions, and otherwise help (annual subscription, cheap, worthwhile:

    The Chicago Manual of Style Online
    Also Chicago Style Q&A, tools for editors, book and CD-ROM.
    http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/

  16. #16 bek
    April 26, 2008

    AP Style:
    – Singular proper names ending in s, use only an apostrophe: Bayes’ theorem
    – Singular nouns ending in s, use ‘s: chess’s beauty (unless the next word begins with s, then it would be chess’ striking beauty)

  17. #17 ds
    April 27, 2008

    So for the possessive plural referring to those books belonging to the Jones family : The Joneses’ books

  18. #18 Catman
    April 27, 2008

    To say nothing of “A box of the Joneses’ books are on the shelf.”

  19. #19 Russell Blackford
    April 27, 2008

    It’s purely a matter of house style. Well not entirely. With a plural, the apostrophe follows the “s”. Everyone agrees on that much. Hence, we say “the Christians’ holy book” if we mean the holy book of all the Christians (or at least more than one of them).

    The rule that I follow – and I can’t even recall its provenance – is that it depends on the number of syllables. Hence:

    “James’s copy of the Bible.”

    BUT

    “Dawkins’ copy of the Koran.”

    This is also how I say these things, but some people really do seem to say it as “Dawkins’s”, however they spell it; at the moment I’m worrying about whether I should impose a style when doing editing gigs or let writers whom I’m editing have some lee-way.

  20. #20 Russell Blackford
    April 27, 2008

    Then, of course, there are the people who use an apostrophe, followed by an “s”, to form a plural:

    “Buy my nice banana’s.”

    Sol Invictus almighty, I hate that.

  21. #21 386sx
    April 27, 2008

    To make a noun possessive:

    If it ends in s, put an apostrophe after it.

    If it doesn’t end in s, put ‘s after it.

    So just make it simpler and put ‘s after everything even if it ends with an s. So you might end up with three s’s sometimes. It’s not the end of the world if there are three of them!

    Gauss’s

    Big deal! They’re separated by an apostrophe people!! It’s not really three in a row!

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2008

    I’m an admitted punctuation Nazi and, as someone who has actually been employed as an editor, I occasionally get to dictate my preferences in these matters on other poor souls. The problem is, we have no equivalent to the French Academy in this country to act as the final authority on correct usage.

    “Problem”?

    All we have is the general consensus of influential individuals and there will always be an minority opinion that passionately disagrees with that consensus. Grammar is a lot like science that way.

    Yes, except this here is not grammar, it’s spelling.

    Bob’ car is plenty enough to convey the meaning thanks!

    But that little apostrophe is overlooked so easily. Why not go the whole way? Bob ? car. B-)

    ———————————-

    I’m with Kurt and with Russell Blackford: if you pronounce a second s, you might as well write it, too.

    BTW… Gau. Muahahahahaaaaah.

  23. #23 SC
    April 27, 2008

    I’ve always done it the way Russell Blackford suggests.

    This reminded me of a scene in a Seinfeld episode, “The Chaperone”:

    LANDIS’S INTERCOM: Justin Pitt to see you.

    ELAINE: Justin Pitt?

    LANDIS: He was a very close friend of Mrs. Onassis’s.

    ELAINE: “Mrs. Onassis’s”? That’s hard to pronounce.

    LANDIS: Excuse me?

    ELAINE: Nothing.

    PITT: Mrs. Landis, there’s something wrong with this copying machine, it’s all coming out slanted. Now, I don’t know if this is your department or not.

    LANDIS: Justin Pitt, this is Elaine Benes.

    PITT (clearly affected by Elaine’s appearance): Charmed.

    ELAINE: I was a great admirer of Mrs. Onass-sis-sis-sis…

    By the way, Elaine was Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character. Or Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character. She was played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, at any rate.

  24. #24 eneS
    April 27, 2008

    To say nothing of “A box of the Joneses’ books are on the shelf.”

  25. #25 mark
    April 27, 2008

    Add to the list of authorities the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual:

    The possessive case of a singular or plural noun not ending in s is formed by adding an apostrophe and s; the possessive case of a singular or plural noun ending in s or with an s sound is formed by adding an apostrophe only.
    (and one more reminder–the possessive pronouns its and theirs do not contain apostrophes.)

  26. #26 abelian jeff
    April 27, 2008

    Josh Rosenau beat me to it — Strunk and White says right on page 1 to add both the apostrophe AND the s.

    Also, I’ve only ever seen “Gauss’s Lemma”, not “Gauss’ Lemma”.

    Looking at the comments on this thread, though, it looks like whether you put that “s” on the end or not, about half of your readers will think you’ve written it incorrectly, so flip a coin ;D

  27. #27 shortie
    April 27, 2008

    Sound the word in your head as you read it. Use the ‘ in the way that sounds the best – or the least awkward.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 27, 2008

    Personally, I don’t pronounce the second s. I say “Bayes theorem,” not “Bayeses theorem,” and “Dawkins book&rdquo, not “Dawkinses book.”

    Of course, I have been known to ask “What has it got in its pocketses?”

  29. #29 Collin Brendemuehl
    April 27, 2008

    My, how things have changed.
    We used to use the lone possessive apostrophe after more than ‘s’.

    Pentax’ used to be standard. Now it’s Pentax’s.
    I don’t recall if other letters were treated in the same way. Maybe I’m just getting old.

  30. #30 maurile
    April 27, 2008

    In journalism, you should write “Dawkins’ book.”

    In other formal writing (e.g., journal articles), you should write “Dawkins’s book.”

    In other writing (e.g., blog posts), you can take your pick.

  31. #31 386sx
    April 28, 2008

    Sound the word in your head as you read it. Use the ‘ in the way that sounds the best – or the least awkward.

    Right, but it should be pronounced as “Bayeses theorem,” not “Bayes theorem”.

    The only reason anybody ever pronounced it as “Bayes theorem” is due to the old fashioned kludge where they left the ‘ hanging out there in the middle of nowhere.

    If people wrote Bayes’s all the time then everybody would pronounce it like “Bayeses theorem,” and there would be no problems in the world whatsoever.

  32. #32 rimpal
    April 28, 2008

    Keep up with the Joneses – it is American!

  33. #33 David D.G.
    April 28, 2008

    I recommend using the extra “s,” especially to avoid that potential business of “a poem by more than one Keat.” But consistency should be sufficient, whichever way you decide upon.

    My main concern, however, is simply that you don’t use “apostrophe + s” to make a plural. Of anything. EVER.

    ~David D.G.

  34. #34 Ed Baker
    April 29, 2008

    I would never write chess’s. It just looks messy.

  35. #35 Ginger Yellow
    April 29, 2008

    Well, the way I’ve always done it is s’ is for plural nouns, while s’s is for proper nouns that end in s (I’m not sure about normal nouns that end in s, though. I would guess s’s). So I’d say Dawkins’s, but also boxes’

    What he said, but echoing everyone else’s caveats about it depending on the style guide of the publication for which you’re writing.

  36. #36 Travis
    April 30, 2008

    As someone whose name ends in ‘s’, I have been directed by various copy editing wags over the years toward “Travis’s” and not “Travis'” when using the possessive.

    When I was little, I was taught s’. But I think we have evolved in the past 20 years to s’s.

  37. #37 facebook
    May 1, 2008

    Good news

    Thank you for the informations.

  38. #38 Joe Shelby
    May 2, 2008

    I always heard it was “s’s” if a *singular* word ends in s, and “s'” only if its a plural word.

  39. #39 GDad
    May 2, 2008

    Choose one, but whatever you do, do not put it before the final S in a word that ends in S. My last name ends in S, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen the equivalent of Tom Jone’s book. Grrrr….

  40. #40 Ian H Spedding FCD
    May 5, 2008

    I was taught – probably longer ago than many others here – that, to form the possessive, simply adding an apostrophe to a noun ending in ‘s’ was acceptable.

    However, the case of the ineffable Wilkins (that sounds like the title of a Sherlock Holmes – or, possibly, P G Wodehouse – story) raises an obvious question: since Wilkin is also a surname, how to distinguish between the possessive ‘Wilkin’s’ and the possessive ‘Wilkins”?

    As an aside, when and where – if at all – would you use a dash or hyphen instead of a comma?

  41. #41 CortxVortx
    May 5, 2008

    As an aside, when and where – if at all – would you use a dash or hyphen instead of a comma?

    Yeah, and do we capitalize the word following a colon?

    Indent the first paragraph of an article/chapter?

    Indent at all when separating paragraphs by a line space?

    And damn Windows for chopping the spacebar to 2/3rds its original size!

    [deep breath]

  42. #42 Billy
    May 5, 2008

    Chiming in a little late, but this question came up recently in a discussion with a math professor over Stokes’ versus Stokes’s Theorem.

    Having a slow hour on the reference desk, I checked the rules in several style manuals. In short, as others have pointed out, opinion on this question is all over the map. This is how I replied:

    Stokes’s is allowed by all but the AMA Manual of Style
    Stokes’ is mandated by AMA, and allowed by Chicago, Oxford, and Webster’s.

    It turns out we were both right about Chicago, thanks to the alternative rule 7.23. The GPO style manual is (perhaps predictably) self-contradictory. A couple (Oxford and Webster’s) are honestly but unhelpfully vague. A couple of others (APA and AIP) are silent on the question, so I have omitted them. Below are summaries of the rules from the several style manuals.

    American Medical Association Manual of Style
    * Add only an apostrophe to singular nouns ending in a sounded “s”
    * Add an apostrophe and “s” to a proper noun or name ending in a z, x, or silent “s”

    Chicago Manual of Style:
    * With some exceptions, add an apostrophe and an “s” to singular nouns ending in “s” (7.17-7.18)
    * Add only an apostrophe to:
    — nouns plural in form but singular in meaning (e.g. politics’) (7.19)
    — names ending in “s” with two or more syllables and ending in an “eez” sound (e.g. Euripides’) (7.20)
    — names ending in an unpronounced “s” (e.g. Descartes’) (7.21)
    — nouns ending in “s” used in the phrase “for … sake” (e.g. “for righteousness’ sake”) (7.22)
    * Alternatively, omit “s” for all nouns ending in “s” (7.23)

    MLA Style Manual
    * Add an apostrophe and “s” to any singular noun (no exceptions: “Descartes’s” is given as an example) (3.4.7.e)

    Oxford Style Manual (5.2.1)
    * “No single rule governs the possessive form of singular nouns that end in ‘s.’ Euphony is the overriding concern, with the final choice affected by the number of syllables and the letters starting the next word.”
    * Add an apostrophe and “s” to:
    — non-classical or non-classicizing personal names ending in an “s” or “z” sound (see exception below)
    — French names ending in a silent “s” (e.g. Descartes’s)
    * Add an apostrophe only to:
    — nouns ending in an “s” or “z” sound when combined with “sake” (e.g. “for appearance’ sake)
    — longer non-classical or non-classicizing personal names ending in an “s” or “z” sound but not accented on the last or penultimate syllable (e.g. Nicholas’)
    — classical or classicizing names ending in “s” or “es” (e.g. Arsaces’)

    United States Government Printing Office Style Manual
    * Add apostrophe and “s” after any singular noun
    * (Curiously, Achilles’ and Jesus’ are given without explanation as exemplary forms.)

    Webster’s Standard American Style Manual
    * “The possessive case of singular nouns ending in an s or z sound is usually formed by adding an apostrophe plus -s to the end of the word. Style varies somewhat on this point, as some writers prefer to add an apostrophe plus -s to the word only when the added -s is pronounced; if it isn’t pronounced, they add just an apostrophe. According to our evidence, both approaches are common in contemporary prose, although always adding an apostrophe plus -s is the much more widely accepted approach.” (p. 79)

  43. #43 ben
    May 7, 2008

    Guinness is brewed in St. James’s Gate, Dublin. Good enough for me.

    Why complicated and spurious rules would apply to names of one syllable, biblical names, or names ending in more than one ‘s’ is completely beyond me. James’s gate. Jones’s jonesin’. Jesus’s sandals. Dawkins’s book. Gauss’s Law. New Orleans’s parade.

  44. #44 AndyD
    May 8, 2008

    I’ve always gone with the Dawkins’ option and I’m not about to change just to keep some language philosophers in paid employ.

    Now, am I correct in my other understanding that geographical names do not use the apostrophe at all? For example, in our nearest city we have “St Georges Terrace”, no apostrophe and this appears standard (here) across a range of other road names and land features.

  45. #45 AJS
    May 8, 2008

    As far as I remember, and in the Queen’s English, the s’ form is used only in the case where the word with the final s is a plural (the boys’ clothes). If the word ending with s is a singular, then ‘s is used as though the word did not end in s (Mr Jones’s car).

    That being said, with careful rephrasing it is possible to avoid the s’s / s’ issue entirely; for example, using of (the theorem of Pythagoras). Another way is to introduce the person by name, then use a pronoun. (I have a great admiration for Dawkins. In his new bestseller …..)

  46. #46 tabuhan
    May 8, 2008

    Thanks..

  47. #47 Lena
    May 8, 2008

    I think you should just stick with the classic; if it ends with s, just add the apostrophy, and for a simple reason; it looks better!
    It seems the grammatical authorities are all over the board, so just trust that inner artist’s intuition.
    But that could just be my abstract solution to a linear problem…?

  48. #48 Monado, FCD
    May 9, 2008

    A couple of points. Either way is defensible, as long as you’re consistent. When you start writing for a new organization, first ask them if they have a house style guide or follow a published guide, e.g. Chicago Manual of Style. If they do, do it their way. If they don’t, then tell them what you’ll be doing. Record your decisions as you go along (a single sheet of paper is sufficient). Just have it, so you can tell them and keep consistent.

    I think that even if people write “Dawkins’s book,” they bail out when the noun has two -s- sounds in a row and and write “Onassis’ book.”

  49. #49 tabuhan
    May 10, 2008

    Thanks… Thanks

  50. #50 Thomas Zaslavsky
    May 12, 2008

    As a fanatical editor and mathematician, I say, don’t let Them push you around! Most people don’t have very clear ideas of how to punctuate or why. This one is certainly local option. But if They don’t think so, They should come up with a good reason. (If they’re smart enough, that won’t be hard.)

  51. #51 tabuhan
    May 20, 2008

    Nice Site, Thanks You.

  52. #52 frank burns
    December 22, 2008

    As someone who has edited numerous books, except for exceptions like those involving the word “sake,” I just add apostrophe followed by an s to everything. Especially in long books that may have many instances, it is the easiest way to avoid problems.
    Interestingly, those who favor other approaches do not seem to notice that the final s of the root word is sometimes pronounced like z, sometimes as a voiceless consonant. This should make a difference to the analysis, as apparently some people do not pronounce the final “iz” sound after a voiced (z-sound) on the root word. I do, however, and I don’t know why people wouldn’t.
    Phonologically, how do such people, in normal speech, differentiate between words spelled in different ways but ending in a sibilant phoneme? Would they pronounce the ending of “the tax’s…” the same as “the tax…”? I wonder.
    In their speech, is this deletion of the possessive ending accompanied by a similar deletion of the plural ending? That is, do they say “keeping up with the Jones” instead of “keeping up with the Joneses”?
    Do they honestly want me to believe they say “I gave it to Liz’ grandmother, with one syllable on “Liz” rather than, I gave it to Liz’s grandmother?
    Isn’t this asking too much, for phonology to be ruled by spelling? I think it is impossible, until the day a tail can wag a dog.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.