Via this column, we’ll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you’d like me to address, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer it.
Poor Charles. All through grammar school his teachers told him to simply add an apostrophe after his name to indicate possession. “This is Charles’ book!” he wrote on the cover of each book they gave him in fifth grade. But not long after, he noticed that others wanted to give him a second “s” — an “s” immediately after the apostrophe — beginning with his sixth grade teacher, who wrote “Charles’s writing is improving” on his report card. His friend James said he was equally confused.
Luckily, before they renamed themselves Chuck and Jim in order to avoid the issue forever, someone in the seventh grade pointed out that there is no hard and fast rule governing the appearance or non-appearance of the second “s” in the possessive form of their names.
Purists will say that the second “s” is pronounced when possession is indicated in spoken English — and that it should therefore appear in the written form. Curmudgeons will cite examples from literature, ad nauseam, where the second “s” never appeared.
The truth is that both the purists and curmudgeons are correct. Some grammarians suggest saying the word aloud, and if it feels normal to pronounce the second “s,” then include it; if it doesn’t, drop it. This is one of those cases where grammar becomes a gray area and curmudgeons are driven insane seeking “the truth.”
Here’s a few examples where it clearly doesn’t matter if the “s” is included or not:
- Dickens’ novel or Dickens’s novel
- Jeff Bridges’ movie or Jeff Bridges’s movie
- Mrs. Jones’ cat or Mrs. Jones’s cat
In these cases, you might pronounce the name with the extra “s” or you might not. It won’t sound wrong to native English speakers either way.
On the other hand, there are some cases where it does sound wrong one way or the other. For example, would you really say Charles’ book? Probably not. You’d more likely pronounce the second “s,” — Charles’s book – and therefore should be inclined to include the extra “s” in the written form.
Likewise, would you ever say “Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood“? Probably not, so leave off the extra “s.”
You won’t hear this from grammar writers very often, so savor this advice: do what you think sounds or looks best.
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Mskadu.