To s, or not to s, that is the question

Happy New Year!

This year I want to concentrate in the blog on the Big Issues, the issues that grab you by the balls (if you're male) and kick you in the guts (unisex) with their desperate relevance to our lives. So let's begin with possessive apostrophes.

If you think this isn't important, then clearly you don't write Greek or Egyptian historicals. The Greeks had a love of names ending in -s. Nicolaos, Socrates, Pericles, Sophroniscus, Callias, least half the names I need.

I was taught in school that a proper noun ending in -s has a possessive with only the apostrophe and no following s. So:

Pericles' scroll

Which is exactly what I have done throughout two novels, and when half your characters have names ending in -s, that's an awful lot of trailing apostrophes.

So far so good, except the style elsewhere appears to be quite different. To pick a random example:

Thutmosis's slingshot

Stephen King, in his essay On Writing, says the 's goes on the end of every proper noun no matter what.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which I have never read, apparently straddles the barbed wire fence by saying King got it right but that my convention is an acceptable alternative.

My OED gives clear examples my way, such as Apostles' Creed, but any search of printed books produces examples always using 's. So at this point I'm wondering if it's a UK vs US difference, except a net search finds plenty of Americans as confused as I now am.

It might help knowing English belongs to the Germanic family of languages, and -es is the most common of several possessive endings in German. Our possessive is precisely the German neuter version, but with the e of -es excised and the apostrophe showing where it used to be. Would it make sense in German to end only with the e? No. By that logic, King is right and it should always be 's. Except English parted ways with German some time ago.

One thing's for sure. If Stephen King is right, then my copyeditor at St Martin's is having a nervous breakdown.


Alun said...

I was taught in English that it went after every proper noun, but at university that nouns ending -es took a terminal apostrophe. It's handy that Socrates' fame meant there was only one of him else it could be confusing.

Where would you stick a grocer's apostrophe if you were writing a scene where someone called Pericle's a grocer? ;)

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Alun, I hadn't heard that variation. I think we're pretty safe on Pericles avoiding grocership.

You'll be mildly horrified to hear there was another Socrates: Socrates Scholasticus hung out in Constantinople about 800 years after the much more famous Socrates died. I suppose the plural would be Socrateses, and their possessive by King's rule would be Socrateses's.

Thanks so much for the idea! I'm tempted to write a second Socrates into the next book purely so I can use that word.

Bill Kirton said...

My understanding was always that the terminal apostrophe is used for plurals - thus, "The horses' saddles were ready" - but, if it's a singular noun ending in s, you need the extra possessive "s" - as in Dickens's Great Expectations. (I think you also see Dickens' Great Expectations but, for me at least, that doesn't feel right.) Punctuation is a minefield but I think that the US/UK difference in usage is in just one area - that of decades. In the UK, it's the 1990s, in the US the 1990's. But if anyone sues me on any of this, I'll deny having said it.

Loretta Ross said...

FWIW, I learned it your way, Gary. I went to a tiny little country grade school (in the U.S. that's generally five-year olds through ten-year olds, but in my case we stayed in the same school until we went to high school at about fourteen), and we learned grammar from Mrs. Lovell. She was also the school principal and had come to that school when it first opened, after a long career teaching in a one-room school house.

YMMV, but personally I'd cross Stephen King waaaay before I'd cross Mrs. Lovell!

You know, maybe, instead of worrying about the *right* way to do it, just think of it as being like eating a Reese's. There's no wrong way . . .

Amalia T. said...

From what I've read, they're both correct and it's a question of preference. I guess I usually add the s though, and reserve those trailing apostrophes for my plurals for the most part. Theseus was always Theseus's in my book about Helen.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks everyone. Interesting there are so many variations. I'm now convinced the possessive in English is slightly broken.

Well if it was good enough for Mrs Lovell, it's good enough for me, so I'll stick with her system for now. I'll probably change for the novels when I found out how St Martin's does it.

scaryazeri said...


Thanks for this, it totally grabbed me by my balls ( or would if I had any)
I have never been sure and could not remember what I had officially been taught about this issue; so I have simply been either guessing or avoiding using that situation altogether. :) As always, Bill's option seems to make the most sense to me, so I will just stick to it. :) Happy New Year!

RWMG said...

The Apostles' Creed has s apostrophe because it's plural, the creed of the Apostles, not just one Apostle.

For what it's worth, I was taught at school that you add 's to English names ending with s (Mr. Jones's) but just an apostrophe for classical names (Aeschylus'). But, a. it was rather old-fashioned even then, and b. you are writing in American English, which may well follow a different practice.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Scary, if you stick with Bill you're likely to be right every time since he knows what he's talking about when it comes to literary stuff.

Don't trust him on UK financial policy though. (I'll let Bill explain that.)

You're right about Apostles' Creed, Robert. I should have thought of that. I rather like the special rule for Classical names. Maybe the rule was created because so many Classical names end in -s?

I can feel myself slipping into the 's camp. The problem is, after a lifetime of doing it one way, any other just looks wrong.

Anonymous said...

I don't have an Associated Press (the U.S.-based reporting agency) stylebook, but I've been told AP dictates the following. This has the advantage of being a commonsense-based rule, which is pretty rare in English:

If you pronounce the extra s, you add it after the apostrophe. If you don't, then you don't.

So Socrates', but Gus's. (I once wrote a character named Gus and found these apostrophe issues to be enough of a pain in the neck that I now bend over backwards to avoid such names. Obviously, that's a luxury you don't have ...)

Gary Corby said...

By Gad Steve, you're right. That does make sense.

Now you only have to worry about difference in author's dialect, but at least we know how the author wants it to be said.

Good idea.

Loretta Ross said...

If you pronounce the extra s, you add it after the apostrophe. If you don't, then you don't.

You know, that DOES make a lot of sense . . . but don't anybody tell Mrs. Lovell I said that!

Just Another Sarah said...

It looks like you pretty much have figured things out, but I just can't but help to weigh in on a grammar question!

I learned it as s' with no s following, in grade school (with the little grammar we were taught), but learned it both ways as I got older. Rules of grammar change as word usage changes. Such is the way of a living language!

I would say the same as Amalia T., that from what I've seen, either is acceptable; the rule Steve mentioned is helpful, but either way, I think it's fine. I would say whatever you do, as long as it's uniform, it should be okay.

Gary Corby said...

Good point, Sarah.

Funny that such a relatively common thing should be so vaguely defined.

RWMG said...

But then I would pronounce it Socra-teases wherever the apostrophe came.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I don't know how I missed this post!

I'm glad it looks like we can both be correct, Gary. Otherwise one of us would have a whole lot of editing to do! :)

Lynn said...

I think that the traditional way to do it is with the apostrophe (no s), but that nowadays, people tend to apostrophe s.

Traditionally, the second s was never pronounced, but it's come into use recently.

Often, the same person will use both version, but the antiquity of the example will decide what variant of possession they use. So it's always Archimedes' screw, but it may be Jules's bicycle.

Since you're writing a novel set in classical greek times, I think that the proper way for you to handle possession is with apostrophe (no s).

Merry Monteleone said...

Gary, you're confusing me!

I thought your way was correct. For instance, being that I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through graduation of High School, we often read about Jesus. When you wrote His name as a possessive, it would be Jesus', for example: Jesus' deciples.

In general, grammar followed Chicago Manual of Style rules, or at least they conform fairly accurately from what I can remember. Unfortunately, I'm one of those people who learned grammar from both education and voracious reading and a lot of my knowledge is just there, rather than me being diligent enough to look it up, unless someone points out I'm wrong on something. More unfortunate is the fact that I read a lot of British Literature and sometimes confuse the rules :-)

Gary Corby said...

Merry, you can't be any more confused than I am!

Ultimately if you're writing for publication then you have to conform with whatever the house rules are, and based on the wide response here I'm guessing that's highly variable.

So you're not safe yet, Stephanie (and neither am I).

Charles David Eyer said...

Strunk & White's Elements of Style starts right off with this thorny wicket. They add an apostraphe and an s(Burns's poems)but they mention ancient proper names can be an exception (Jesus'). Since my novels are in Roman times, I end up with many names ending in s. I find myself writing around them: the face of Tigellinus instead of Tigellinus's face.

Gary Corby said...

I tried writing around it too, early in the game, but I learned to love my inner trailing apostrophe and now I barely notice it.

Anonymous said...

Not that this was your topic, but possessives seem EASY compared to plurals. Venus & Serena -- the Williamses? Elin & Tiger -- the Woodses?
My entire family (of otherwise smart folks) pluralizes our surname like so: one Myers, two Myers. Or, "Hi, you've reached the Myers." Ugly as they might sound, I believe it has to be this way.
Well, except for my sister who WRITES Myers' and pronounces MyersES for the plural.
I wrote to CNN (US cable news channel) the other day when they botched the heck out of this.
Or maybe it's not really an issue, but my family and CNN are crazy & everyone else is cool with this.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jeff, and welcome to the blog!

Speaking for myself, we take off the y of Corby and make it Corbies. But that's relatively easy because it's a real word in Northern English dialects.

I guess for plural Myers you could just say, "the Myers family" and get the benefit of the collective plural in family. Or make it Latin and go for gens Meyeri. Or Greek as genos Myerae.