Roy Peter Clark settles the possessive apostrophe debate: Follow grammarians’s rules

October 28, 2019

In my career as a journalist and scholar I have written about sex – a lot. I have written about religion and politics. I have written about the millennium and the Holocaust. I wrote a 29-part series about AIDS. Just this week, I wrote about the connection between political corruption and language abuse.

Apparently, none of those topics really matter. What really matters to my readers is punctuation and AP style. There was that issue of the Oxford comma, you may remember. Then the semicolon emerged from its cage, seeking attention. The dash made a dash for the front of the stage.

So, desperate for readers and attention, I give you the apostrophe, the possessive and, yes, AP Style. A firestorm of controversy — a cliché I have condemned countless times — has been sparked by the AP’s announcement that it is considering a change in the way we use the possessive apostrophe.

AP reporters write fast, but their Stylebook moves slow. So I will flatter myself into thinking that something I wrote in 2010 foreshadowed this reform movement.

My take on the topic appears on page 82 of my book “The Glamour of Grammar” (which has 11 chapters on punctuation!). This is part of what I had to say:

Language scholars have a word for the sound made by the letter s. They call it a sibilant, which is derived from the Latin word meaning “to hiss.”

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E.B. White once wrote of Florida: “The south is the land of the sustained sibilant. Everywhere, for the appreciative visitor, the letter ‘s’ insinuates itself in the scene: in the sound of the sea and sand, in the singing shell, in the heat of sun and sky, in the sultriness of the gentle hours, in the siesta, in the stir of birds and insects.” I reread those sweet sentences aloud just to enjoy their alliterative music and was surprised at how the passage hissed without sounding all snaky.

Now hold your tongue and recite: “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Sometimes excessive use of the letter s turns the tongue into flypaper.

This brings me to E.B. White’s famous teacher, William Strunk Jr., author of the original edition of “The Elements of Style.” Written in 1918, the little book on grammar, style and usage begins with this advice: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.”

What could be clearer?

“The book’s simplicity and utility have made it a classic.”

We also learn that ’s is all we need when the plural form of a noun that ends in something other than s:

“The men’s room needs some cleaning.”

We do run into sticky problems of sibilance in those tricky cases when we attach one s to another. Professor Strunk tells us to add the ’s no matter the final consonant of the noun and cites as examples “Charles’s friend” and “Burns’s poems.”

This makes sense to me because it echoes the way we would speak the word aloud. So it puzzles me that the AP Stylebook, the most influential guide for journalists, argues that a simple apostrophe suffices after proper nouns ending in s: as in “Agnes’ book” and “Jules’ seat.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read those aloud, the missing s trips up my tongue, and on the page it bothers my eyes. I would say “Agnes’s book” and “Jules’s seat.”

There are classic examples when adding an s gives you that Velcro feeling: I would not say “Achilles’s heel.” Achilles’ will do fine, thank you, with the prepositional phrase a convenient escape hatch: the teachings of Socrates.

Why does this matter? In an edition of my hometown newspaper, a story contained these two climactic sentences:

“In Wes’ last act, he fed a stranger and gave him a place to rest. It cost him his life.”

As I read this compelling story, I stopped every time I encountered the possessive “Wes’.” The discord between my eye and ear make the absence of another s stand out like an elephant without a trunk. No one I know would say “Wes’ last act”; any reader would say “Wes’s.”

At the time the stylebook justified the missing s based on the value of “consistency and ease in remembering a rule.” To which I respond: What about the needs and experiences of the reader?

Most language experts advise writers to ignore restrictions that require you to write or say something awkward or ugly, especially something that offends the ear. In this case, let us match punctuation to speech. Let your ear help govern the possessive apostrophe. As long as the snake isn’t swallowing its tongue, let the reptile hiss.

In summary:

  • To form a possessive singular, add an ’s: “Sadie’s ring.”
  • To form a possessive plural, in most cases, add an apostrophe after the s: “The Puritans’ journey.”
  • If the plural of a noun does not end in s, add an ’s to form the possessive: “The children’s field trip.”
  • If a proper noun (a name) ends in an s, add ’s in most cases, but let your ear guide you through the tough ones: “Archimedes’ experiment.”
  • In some 50/50 cases, read it aloud in context, then choose, or flip a coin: “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”
  • On this issue and all others, make sure you know which style manual governs your work. It may change as you change classes and teachers or jobs and professions.

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter for four decades. He can be reached at roypc@poynter.org.