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Apostrophes and Proper Nouns

Take a close look at this sentence about the great playwright Tennessee Williams: It’s Tennessee William’s best play. Note the placement of the apostrophe. It disfigures the name Williams—how could that be right? Here’s a rule to live by: Forget the apostrophe until you write out the entire word. A correct possessive apostrophe can never entangle itself within any word. So by writing Williams out first, you can avoid a lot of trouble.

The trouble that can’t be avoided comes next, because there are conflicting policies for writing possessive proper nouns that end in s. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends just an apostrophe: It’s Tennessee Williams’ best play. But most other authorities endorse ’s: Williams’s.

Williams’s means “belonging to Williams.” It is not the plural form of Williams. People’s names become plural the way most other words do. Only rank amateurs think the plural of cat is cat’s. Names are no different. They seem different because of human vanity: we’re somehow reluctant to compromise the “purity” of Smith so we mistakenly write the Smith’s, adding the apostrophe to establish a respectful distance between the name and the s rather than simply writing the Smiths, the Fongs, the Calderóns.

Now, what if the name ends in s? Figuring out the plural of a name like Williams drives people crazy. Some would write the Williams, but that means the family’s name is William. Others employ that misguided apostrophe: the Williams’ or the Williams’s or even the William’s. That last one is particularly ghastly. Taken literally, the William’s means something ridiculous: “belonging to the William.” Forcing an apostrophe between the m and s mangles and mocks the name.

All names ending in s become plural by adding es. Make it the Williamses. To show possession, add just an apostrophe: Williamses’. The house belonging to the Williams family is the Williamses’ house. Maybe you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous and looks bizarre. But it’s also correct.

Let’s look at some other types of proper nouns …

• Many organizations, companies, and government agencies are known by two or more capital letters (AP, MGM, EEOC). Initialisms ending in S show possession by adding ’s: CBS’s ratings, DHHS’s policies.

• Add only an apostrophe to show possession for a place, business, or organization whose name is a plural noun or ends with a plural noun: the Everglades’ scenery, Beverly Hills’ weather; the Cellars’ wine list, General Mills’ cereals.

• Most writers and editors make an exception for biblical and classical proper names ending in s. Traditionally, only an apostrophe is added to such names: Moses’ law, Xerxes’ army. However, the influential Chicago Manual of Style recently ruled against this odd policy and started recommending Moses’s, Xerxes’s, etc.

For apostrophes with possessive proper nouns, remember these three guidelines: If the noun is singular, add ’s (Kansas’s). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the Magi’s gifts). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the Beatles’ greatest hits).

Except for writers who abide by Associated Press guidelines, apostrophe rules for possessive proper nouns are virtually identical to those for possessive common nouns.

 

Pop Quiz
Correct any wayward sentences.

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adam’s son.
2. Both Adams’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Season’s food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnson’s favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdez’s car is in the shop.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adams’s son. (some would write Adams’)
2. Both Adamses’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Seasons’ food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnsons’ favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdezes’ car is in the shop.

Posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 4:56 pm


10 Comments

10 Responses to “Apostrophes and Proper Nouns”

  1. Erin Rich says:

    You mention an easy rule for names that end in “s.” Just add “es.” I just want to confirm that this is also true for names that end in “sh” or “ch.” Names like “Rich.”

  2. Darlene L. says:

    Thank you so much for this! One thing that drives me crazy is to hear a pastor or speaker talking about something belonging to Jesus and saying “Jesus’s.” I’ve also seen a lot of books and documents lately that write the possessive of James as James’s. It just goes against my grain.

    • We certainly understand how certain ways of saying things can sometimes sound strange to us. However, either Jesus’ or Jesus’s as well as James’ or James’s are grammatically acceptable.

      • Darlene L. says:

        I was taught that James’s or Jesus’s is incorrect. When did this change?

        • Both Jesus’s and James’s still mostly are considered verboten when the reference is to biblical names. Jesus and James are both common names these days (Jesus, especially in the Hispanic community), and would require ‘s. The Chicago Manual of Style changed its apostrophe-only policy in the last few years, a bold move that we welcome.

  3. Fred B. says:

    When we say Moses’ law, we pronounce Moses’ with three syllables. It makes sense that we could spell it Moses’ or Moses’s. When we say Xerxes’ army, we pronounce Xerxes’ with two syllables (at least I would). It makes no sense to spell it Xerxes’s (which we would be inclined to pronounce as three syllables).

    Does the way in which we are inclined to pronounce the word help determine how we spell it? It makes sense to me that it would.

    • There are so many exceptions and qualifications about possessive apostrophes—plus or minus s—in various editors’ policies, and countless, seemingly irrational, exceptions. In these articles, we have tried to identify the rules that are closest to universal, and left out some areas that more advanced readers may wish we’d cover. In the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation we provide a few alternatives for dealing with the tricky area of possessives of nouns ending in s, including a “write the word as we would speak it” option. But this method, too, has exceptions and can let you down, especially since not everyone would necessarily pronounce the same written word in the same way.

  4. Buffy says:

    Has the rule about showing the possessive of names ending in S
    changed in the last 60+ years? I am an old timer in my 80′s, but I was at the top of my English class when I was in school.

    Am I deluded? Is my memory faulty? Wasn’t I taught that it was
    Mrs. Jones’ dog and the Reynolds’ cat? Or have I been doing it
    wrong all these years?

    My life was spent first as a newspaper writer and later as an English teacher. I even authored a published book. Today I got
    a question on the quiz WRONG. My day is ruined! Please tell me the rules have changed.

    • Please don’t despair even though we haven’t been able to save your ruined day. Indeed the “rules,” which are really customs and conventions in this case, have changed over the years. As we point out in the blog “Apostrophes and Proper Nouns,” there are conflicting policies for writing possessive proper nouns that end in s. You may write either Mrs. Jones’ dog or Mrs. Jones’s dog (our recommendation); just be consistent.

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