On October 22nd, at 2:50 P.M., @APStylebook tweeted a series of guidelines about how to punctuate possessives of nouns that end in “S”: “For possessives of plural nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe: the churches’ needs, the girls’ toys, the horses’ food, the ships’ wake, states’ rights, the VIPs’ entrance.” Then it dropped a bombshell: “We are considering changing to use ’s when making a name that ends in S possessive: Mavis Staples’s album, Martha Reeves’s concert.” People were invited to weigh in, and Twitter was possessed with the possessive—or at least with the “S” following the apostrophe to form the possessive of a noun ending in a sibilant. If I were the gym teacher who blows her whistle to halt the dodgeball game in John Waters’ “Hairspray,” I’d blow till I blew my brains out.
The Associated Press Stylebook is the go-to guide for U.S. publications that don’t have their own stylebooks—“the journalist’s bible.” Generally, its decisions tend toward loosening rather than straitening the rules. For instance, the A.P. accepts the singular “they/their” (classic example: “Everyone took their seat”) and resists the serial (or Oxford) comma. In September, the organization caused a ruckus when it recommended getting rid of the hyphen in “first-quarter touchdown.” (The hyphen was restored in time for football season.) Its pronouncement on the apostrophe and “S” drew twenty-eight hundred responses (at this writing), ranging from bafflement and consternation to scorn and reason (from both sides). According to a limited, unscientific survey (I read till my eyes glazed over), those who reject the proposed new rule edge out those who support it, 83–82.
People who feel strongly about not adding the “S” are probably the same ones who delete the serial comma, at least to judge from their reasons. It takes up space. The extra “S” is “redundant and unnecessary” (@WillotheGlen). They argued that without the “S” the word is more concise, it’s cleaner. “Please leave the beautiful s’ as is. The entire point of the apostrophe is to SHORTEN/EASE the word” (@ryankendellB). “I would rather be trampled by 30–50 feral hogs than be forced to write Mavis Staples’s” (@kguilbault_). People whose name ends in “S,” whether it’s voiced or unvoiced, take this stuff personally. James Harbeck (@sesquiotic), a writer and freelance editor in Toronto, wrote scornfully of those who would not add the “S”: “ ‘My name ends with an s and I’m fine with just the apostrophe!’ Well, mine ends with an s and I’m not. My books are James’s books. I am not a Jame or two.”
Many people have devised their own phonetic distinctions for adding or withholding the “S.” “When the sibilant is voiced (when S sounds like Z) use just an apostrophe. When the sibilant is unvoiced (S just hisses, doesn’t buzz) use the apostrophe and another S. This avoids the awkward sounding double z at the end of words” (@truenarnian). Other phonetic schemes may sound slightly bogus—“The rule is that with names already having two sibilants, like Jesus, Texas, or Moses, one wouldn’t use ’s but just ’ ” (@TheBonniePrince)—yet turn out to be in line with the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Others are flawed: “Do it if there is a vowel preceding the s. For example: Daniel Jones’s talent is impressive. Absolutely not if there is a consonant before the s. For example: The Giants’s GM is an absolute buffoon” (@twentee7). As “Giants” is plural, it would not need the extra “S”; in this case, it could even do without the apostrophe.
If you have ever tried to write about the apostrophe and started out with how simple it is to form the possessive of singular and plural nouns and then thought of a few exceptions (irregular plurals such as attorneys general or mothers-in-law), and then a few more exceptions (Jesus! Socrates!), and then got confused (OMG, the silent “S” in French!) and realized it wasn’t so simple after all (Fuck, Illinois and Arkansas!), you know despair. Strunk and White kept it simple: form the possessive of singular nouns by adding an apostrophe plus “S.” The example I remember from “The Elements of Style” is “Charles’s head.” Or was it “Charles’s friend”? Whichever, it made me feel grateful to Strunk and White and quite tender toward Charles.
The Chicago Manual of Style (Seventeenth Edition) does its best to wrangle the possessive into submission. The discussion comes in Section 7: Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds: “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s” (CMOS 7.16). So far so good. “The general rule stated at 7.16 extends to the possessives of proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z” (CMOS 7.17). Then it gets complicated: “Classical proper names of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound form the possessive in the usual way” (CMOS 7.19). Examples: “Euripides’s tragedies, the Ganges’s source, Xerxes’s armies.” If this seems extreme, note that Chicago adds, in parentheses, “when these forms are spoken, the additional s is generally not pronounced.” At 7.22, the Chicago Manual, which is intended more for academic writing than for journalism, acknowledges an “alternative practice for words ending in ‘s’ ”: “Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s.” Examples include “Dylan Thomas’ poetry” and “Etta James’ singing.” The note continues, “Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation in the majority of cases and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”
So what’s a copy editor to do? Include the “S” and not pronounce it or leave off the “S” and let the reader supply it mentally? That’s what I do when my surname appears in print in the possessive with “the lone apostrophe,” as someone on Twitter called it. After all, the editors are just following the style of the publications they work for; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be working for those publications long. Hello, freelance life! But what of the reader? Which do we disregard, pronunciation or spelling? One of the most reasonable formulations to appear on Twitter was from @andyhre:
it should be written as it is pronounced.
if we say Charles-es, it’s Charles’s.
We don’t say Achilles-es, so Achilles’
The trouble is that we pronounce things differently. In the end, the possessive apostrophe “S” following a sibilant is a matter of personal preference and professional judgment. Good luck to the A.P. and peace to all those who rely on its recommendations.