What’s an Apostrophe to Do?
by Trista Cornelius
Claire’s purse, James’s hat, Moses’s commandments: What’s an apostrophe to do?
Is it just me, or are apostrophes troubling? We covered the main issues last month: Plural nouns do not need an apostrophe, possessive nouns do. Apostrophes are also used in contractions. Okay. We got it, until we don’t.
Let’s say you have a charming short story about a special character whose name you’ve spent weeks trying to discover. Finally, in the warming light of early dawn, it comes to you: Gladys! That’s it. The perfect name that pulls the whole story together.
Well, if Gladys is going to own anything, you’re going to run into a confusing situation: how to show possession with a name ending in -s. Different style books say different things, and many of them leave it up to the writer, referring to it as personal style. I, however, would prefer a clear rule for names like Thomas or Cornelius, Jesus or Moses, Francis or Gladys.
Here are your options:
- Add ’s always: Clair Thomas’s silver purse was heavier than a cast-iron tub.
- Add ’s only if the word following the name does not start in -s: Clair Thomas’s purse was heavier than a cast-iron tub.
- Add only an apostrophe if the next word starts in -s: Claire Thomas’ satin handbag dangled precariously on the back of the chair.
- Add only an apostrophe always: Clair Thomas’ purse was heavier than a cast-iron tub.
The problem, at least for me, is that adding only an apostrophe signifies a plural possessive, not a singular possessive. The apostrophe dangling alone with no -s to follow it suggests it’s a plural noun, not a singular noun. Somehow, readers are to know from context that there is just one Clair Thomas being discussed here.
I prefer to be extra clear:
Clair Thomas’s purse was heavier than a cast-iron tub. At the Thomas’ family reunion, the boy cousins held a contest to see who could lift it the highest without collapsing.
The first apostrophe makes it clear that there is one Clair. The second apostrophe shows the whole Thomas family (plural) own their family reunion.
Here are what some style guides say:
- VoiceCatcher’s “Tips for Submitting” guidelines say if it’s difficult to pronounce the -s’s, leave the last one off, as in James’ pen (rather than James’s: James-zes) or Moses’ law (rather than Moses’s: Moze-zes-zes). If it’s not hard to pronounce the -s’s (and the next word does not start with -s), keep the apostrophe and the -s. (Strauz’s waltz, Phyllis’s poem).
- Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab says James’s hat and James’ hat are both acceptable.
- Chicago Manual of Style says either way is correct, but that they prefer James’s.
- The Associated Press says use the apostrophe only for proper names ending in -s (Descartes’) but use the ’s for “common nouns” ending in -s, like witness’s.
Other sources mention the z-sound caused by the ’s, again in names like Moses’s. They recommend if this z-sound occurs use only the apostrophe (Moses’).
By this rule, you could end up with: Gladys’s flowers were delivered to the Mrs. Moses’ address.
How is a reader to know what is singular and what is plural? In the previous sentence, context makes it clear: There is probably only one Mrs. Moses. But why have an ’s and an s’ in one sentence? The inconsistency confuses me. Besides, I suppose if you’re going to be reading your work aloud, you can adjust your diction as you read pronouncing James’s as James’ without altering your text.
I really thought I’d solve the problem of possessive nouns ending in -s, but whether I like it or not, the overriding “rule” seems to be: It’s up to you.
However, if it were up to me, I’d say always use both the apostrophe and the added -s for nouns ending in -s:
Gladys’s eyeglasses barely fit into Claire’s purse, which Thomas’s cat, Moses, pounced upon. When Moses’s paw got tangled in the strap, Gladys’s eyeglasses flew out at the Cornelius’ house.
This tells your reader there is one Gladys, one Claire, one Thomas, one cat named Moses, and at least two or more Corneliuses.
You tell me. As readers and writers, what do you prefer? What is the most clear?
This is the ninth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!