Episode 35: January 5, 2007
by Mignon Fogarty
Today's topic is tough apostrophe issues.
How do You Make Singular Words Ending in S Possessive?
I said it in the last episode about apostrophes, and I'll say it again: there are some confusing situations when it comes to apostrophes. For example, Christine, from Portland, Oregon; Judy from Traverse City, Michigan; Katy from Australia; Kristi from Washington, D.C.; and Rick from Las Vegas, Nevada, all asked how to make a singular word that ends in s possessive. I know that this is a raging debate even at the highest levels of government because Tracey from Mountain View, California, and a listener named Arman both sent me a funny article describing U.S. Supreme Court squabbles over making the word Kansas possessive. Words such as Kansas that end with an s can be stumpers when it comes to apostrophes.
Is it Kansas's statute with an apostrophe s or Kansas' statute with just an apostrophe at the end? Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion and prefers to leave off the extra s, referring to Kansas' statute with just an apostrophe at the end, whereas Justice David Souter wrote the dissenting opinion and prefers the double s of Kansas's statute with an apostrophe before the final s.
So who's right? The first clue is that Justice Thomas' name ends with an s, so you might guess that he is more familiar with the issue. Associated Press style also recommends leaving off the extra s. Some of you have noticed that I tend to favor AP style, so you won't be surprised to learn that I prefer to leave off the extra s. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this isn't a hard-and-fast rule; it's a style issue. Other style books such as Fowler's Modern English Usage recommend adding the apostrophe s to almost all singular words that end with s.* So our first tough issue—how to make words that end with s possessive—doesn't actually have an answer; it's a style issue and you can do it either way.
What About Plural Words?
I always feel bad when the answer is that there isn't an answer, so here's an easier situation that has a firm rule: if the word ending with s is plural, such as aardvarks, then you just add an apostrophe at the end to make it possessive. For example, you could write, "The aardvarks' escape route [s apostrophe] was blocked" to indicate that a family of aardvarks needed to find another way out of danger.
Plural words that don't end with s, such as children, do take an apostrophe s at the end for possession. For example, you could write, "Fortunately, the children's room [children apostrophe s] had a hidden doorway."
Here's a tricky issue with a definite answer: how do you make the plural of a single letter, as in Mind your p's and q's? It's shocking, but you actually use the apostrophe before the s! It looks possessive, but it isn't. The apostrophe is just there to make it clear that you're writing about multiple p's and q's. The apostrophe is especially important when you are writing about a's, i's, and u's because without the apostrophe readers could easily think you are writing the words as, is, and us.
Should You Use Apostrophes with Abbreviations?
Finally, we'll end with another gray area. Brian in Toronto and a listener named Josh asked whether they should use apostrophes to make abbreviations plural. Brian gets irritated when he sees signs advertising CD's for sale with it written C-D-apostrophe-s. Gen wrote in about the same thing, feeling a sense of horror after seeing CD's written with an apostrophe in the New York Times. Although I share Brian and Gen's irritation and hate seeing it written that way, again, I have to admit that it's a style issue, and some books recommend putting in the apostrophe because it indicates that letters are missing**. It makes me want to let out a big “Hrumph” like Sir Fragalot, but that's the way it is.
Believe it or not, there are even more issues we can talk about related to apostrophes, but I'm afraid I'm going to overwhelm everyone so I'll save them for another day.
*The exceptions according to Fowler’s are words such as Moses and Bridges that end with an s that makes an /iz/ sound, classical names such as Zeus and Venus, and Jesus. Fowler's suggests that all of these words should end with just an apostrophe (e.g., Moses' tablets).
** Brian correctly pointed out that if you followed this logic, then you would need an apostrophe after every letter in an abbreviation (C'D's). I agree, but I don't write the books (yet).
Grammar Girl has received a lot of press attention in the last week!
Grammar Girl was interviewed for an Associated Press story about bad grammar in song lyrics.
Grammar Girl was interviewed for the New Comm Road podcast. (Hear me ramble about how the show got started!)
The show was mentioned in Podcast User Magazine. (PDF file)
The show was recommended by the Arizona Republic.
The show was highlighted on the LifeHacker blog.