Apostrophes That Make You Go Hmmm

Apostrophe-Post-Cropped-2Among the conundrums that apostrophes pose, one of the more perplexing is what to do with proper nouns that end in -s. Is it Chris’s mistake or Chris’ mistake? Does it matter for the spelling whether you pronounce that possessive ending on Chris with an extra syllable? Do aesthetics play any role?

Style guides do not all agree. Some favor consistent use of -’s for all nouns. Some guides espouse consistency but with exceptions: For example Strunk and White’s Elements of Style makes an exception for “the possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is” (e.g., Moses, Isis) and “the possessive Jesus’.” Occasionally a guide pronounces that pronunciation matters: Add -’s if the possessive syllable is pronounced and just an apostrophe if it is not pronounced (e.g., Socrates’ cat). The fact that we may not all agree on how to pronounce something like Carlos’s/Carlos’ cat certainly complicates that recommendation.

In general, I am persuaded that consistency in creating possessives is a good principle, which would support using -’s for all singular nouns, no matter what letter they end with. So it’s Morgan’s error, Alex’s slip-up, and Chris’s mistake. But I waver occasionally. Three years ago, when I was going over the page proofs of my book Fixing English, my eye got stuck on the phrase Lynne Truss’s book. That is a lot of s’s in a row!* Some part of me balked. So I took every instance of Truss’s and changed it to Truss’, even though I pronounce the possessive with two syllables. I sent off the proofs and woke up in the morning in an apostrophe-induced panic. How could I have broken with my commitment to consistency and not left it as Truss’s? No matter that it looks a little odd with all those s’s. I immediately emailed the editor and asked him to ignore my changes and leave Truss’s as is.

Where my aesthetic preferences about possessive apostrophes get even more seriously challenged is with the plural of family names that end in -s. If Jo Jones makes a decision, then it’s Jo Jones’s decision. I’m fine with that, based on the above-mentioned consistency principle. But if Jo and Jo’s entire family make a decision, then it is the Joneses’ decision, according to most style guides. If that final -eses’ makes you look twice, you’re not alone; and it doesn’t get better for me if the last name has more syllables: the Hastingses’ folly, the Onassises’ kerfuffle.

The possessive apostrophe tacked onto the end of these words is icing. My reaction of “How could something that we are told is technically correct look so wrong?” is about the plural of the family name. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern English Usage, presents the rule about adding -es to family names ending in -s as exceptionless. He goes on to note: “Otherwise well-schooled people have a hard time with names that end in -s.” Count me among this group.

Here, the principle of consistency, which has convinced me to accept Truss’s book and Moses’s law, strikes me as aesthetically unfortunate. I typically take the escape hatch and write something like the Jones family’s decision or the folly of the Hastings family. I’d love to see the Hastings as a clipping of the Hastings family and let it be the plural, which would let us write the Hastings’ folly. Would people, whatever their level of schooling, miss the plural –es? Methinks perhaps not so many and not so much.


* When folks criticize the “grocer’s apostrophe” in something like plural banana’s, they will sometimes say that the apostrophe should never be used to make plurals. Oh, be careful! A plural like s’s, which I have used here, is usually seen as just fine, and many style guides accept 1970’s as a plural too. The apostrophe is slippery and has been its entire life in English.

Return to Top