Don’t feel bad — you’re not the only ignorant one. You might not know how to make possessive a word that ends in S (Jones’s book? Jones’ book?), but no one else does either. Your good company includes Merriam-Webster, the Associated Press, and Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Last month Howell unsealed a heavily redacted memorandum about an investigation into possible bribery by a criminal who was seeking clemency from Donald Trump. Though most of the names in the document were blacked out, eagle-eyed observers noted that in some spots, an apostrophe fell at the end of a redacted name, possibly indicating that the name ended in S (as in, Jones’ plea, as opposed to Smith’s plea). That set off a flurry of guessing which potential convict’s name ended in S: Gates? DeVos? Nunes?
Unfortunately, standards about adding a possessive to words that end in S are so weak that you can’t even base goofy internet conjecture on them.
Some people will tell you they know when to use apostrophe-S (Jones’s) vs. S-apostrophe (Jones’). These people are liars who cannot be trusted.
Why? Because, despite what your high school English teacher taught you, there is no one consistent rule on this. It’s apostrophe anarchy out there. The possessives are possessed.
Virtually every reference you consult on the topic takes a different view. (Note: Don’t bother Googling this. The internet is not a reference. The internet is an idiot.)
The Inquirer stylebook says: “To form the possessive of most words, add ‘s. If the word already ends in s, add only the apostrophe. ... Two exceptions to the rules above: 1. Abbreviations or acronyms ending in S (the capital letter) take ‘s to form the possessive: CBS’s schedule.2. The Court of St. James’s. This is an exception by long tradition.”
Merriam-Webster’s 11th Edition Collegiate Dictionary says singular names get apostrophe-S (Douglas’s crimes), but plural names get S-apostrophe (the Stevenses’ house). The Associated Press goes S-apostrophe for all singular names (Douglas’ crimes) but has convoluted rules about other nouns that depend on the first letter of the next word (the witness’ seat, but the witness’s answer). And in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, literally the first rule in the book is to use apostrophe-S (Douglas’s crimes), unless — and this should make your head explode — they’re “ancient proper names” like Moses or Jesus. So Moses’ plans for the exodus from Egypt don’t warrant an S after the apostrophe, but Robert Moses’s plans for New York City do. Sounds like an 11th plague.
The result is a maddeningly inconsistent universe of apostrophe-laden possessives. Publications follow an established style guide (like the Associated Press’ — or is it the Associated Press’s?) or create their own. But this isn’t foolproof, as you may have one style but be directly quoting a publication with an opposing style. Even Howell’s redacted memorandum contains instances of both S-apostrophe and apostrophe-S.
So what are writers and editors to do?
The apostrophe itself is more than 500 years old. We haven’t come up with standard rules yet, so don’t hold your breath. Best you can do is be internally consistent, follow a single style, and promise to shame anyone who uses an apostrophe to pluralize anything (also known as the “grocers’ apostrophe,” as in, “apple’s for sale”).
Because the holiday season is especially treacherous for apostrophes. And anyone whose “Happy Holidays from the [your last name]s” message includes any apostrophe is guilty — with no chance of clemency.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and diacritics to firstname.lastname@example.org.