Apostrophes: Dueling Rules

There are various guidelines for apostrophes, but only three rules that everyone agrees on: To show possession for a noun that is singular and does not end in s, add ’s (Joe’s lunch). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the people’s choice). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the leaves’ bright colors).

Beyond these, the experts are at odds. For instance, how should we write the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in s? The two foremost American authorities on written English, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), have irreconcilable policies. AP prefers adding only an apostrophe (Charles’ book), whereas CMOS recommends adding ’s (Charles’s book). Take your pick.

Here are some other apostrophe debates …

CMOS adds just an apostrophe when a noun ending in s is the same whether singular or plural. The guidebook offers three examples: politics’ true meaning, economics’ forerunners, and this species’ first record. The GrammarBook.com staff agrees with politics’ and economics’, but prefers this species’s, because in normal English usage, species is just as likely to be singular as it is to be plural—one often hears “a species,” but who says “a politics” or “an economics”?

• With nouns ending in s, writes English scholar Roy H. Copperud, there are editors whose choice of either ’s or a lone apostrophe is based on such esoteric criteria as how many syllables are in the word; whether the accent falls on the last syllable; and whether the last syllable begins, ends, or both begins and ends with an s sound. If you’re shaking your head, you’re not alone.

• Many who generally add ’s to common and proper nouns ending in s make one huge exception: they drop the added s if pronouncing it would be awkward or uncomfortable. For example, since most people would not pronounce an s added to the possessive form of Mr. Hastings, these writers and editors prefer Mr. Hastings’ pen, not Hastings’s. And since most people would likely pronounce an added s if the pen belonged to Mrs. Jones, it should be Mrs. Jones’s pen, rather than Jones’.

It should be noted that CMOS does not concur, and prescribes ’s with no exceptions (other than the aforementioned politics, economics, etc.). We agree, because we do not assume that all careful speakers pronounce words the same. To what extent should the editing of written English be based on ease of pronunciation? That is a discussion worth having. But such a method does not account for vast differences in articulation within the diverse company of literate speakers of English worldwide.

Besides, anytime you don’t like the look or sound of a sentence, the easy way out is a rewrite. As CMOS points out, writing the first record of this species sidesteps the whole species’ vs. species’s predicament.

And when it comes to apostrophe rules, we see little to be gained from so many exotic exceptions and qualifications.

Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 5:43 pm

18 Comments on Apostrophes: Dueling Rules

18 responses to “Apostrophes: Dueling Rules”

  1. Jill Smith says:

    My son’s name is Davis. If I want to write that Davis possesses something, should I write Davis’ toy or Davis’s toy? I hope it’s Davis’ because the other way looks WRONG.

    • Please see Rule 1c in the Apostrophes section of our GrammarBook.com website. There you will see that either method may be used. Sometimes, whether something looks right or wrong is subjective. Personally, we prefer “Davis’s” because that’s how we would say it.

  2. Mark Altizer says:

    How would one write the possessive of a possessive? For example, there’s a business called Joe’s. Just Joe’s. Not Joe’s Restaurant or Joe’s Auto Repair, just plain Joe’s. Joe’s has an annual food drive. How would you write this?

    “Joe’s food drive” implies that a fellow named Joe has a food drive.

    “Joe’s’s food drive doesn’t seem right, either.

    Similarly, how would one write the plural of a possessive?

    For example, there are several McDonald’s restaurants in town. Without using the word “restaurant”, how would you say that?

    There are six McDonald’s(es) in town is not right.

    • Some may argue that “Joe’s’s food drive” and “six McDonald’s’s in town” should be technically correct; however, these look awkward with two apostrophes. “Joe’s food drive” and “six McDonald’s in town ” are better choices; however, the best option would be to rearrange the phrases as “Food drive at Joe’s” and “Six McDonald’s restaurants in town.”

  3. Chris says:

    I am writing a memo about a Soldier whose name is Martinez. When using the possessive, do I use the aposotrophe + “s” or just the apostrophe?

  4. Elisabeth says:

    Here is the sentence: Ruth and Naomi lives’ were improved…. Should lives be considered possessive plural since there are two lives, right? And you should add an apostrophe because you are referring to each life, right? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

  5. Ed says:

    When using a name that ends in z what is the proper way of using the apostrophe? Is it the same that applies to somoeone with the last name ending in s?

    ex: Mr. Nunez’ voice was loud or Mr. Nunez’s vioce was loud.

  6. Thomas says:

    During proofreading my cv I bumped on a grammar issue.
    I asked some friends who are native speakers (Australian, USA, UK, Ireland), but they all couldn’t agree to one.

    How do you write correctly:
    Graduate student with two Masters’ degrees and plenty of international experience.

    two Master’s degrees or two Masters’ degrees?

  7. Tani says:

    I am titling an exhibit called “The Joe’s Know; Make Your Own Myth”……..
    Should the is read; Joes, Joe’s or Joes’ referring to 2 men named Joe?

  8. kristy nathan says:

    What is the best way to write the following and where does the apostrophe S need to be?

    “she was running around with her sister’s, Selena, ex-boyfriend” or she was running around with her sister, Selena’s, ex-boyfriend”

    • As explained in our post Commas with Appositives, setting the name Selena off with commas means that she likely has only one sister, and thus the name is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, the apostrophe plus s must be attached to both nouns sister and Selena or simply omit the name:
      “She was running around with her sister’s, Selena’s, ex-boyfriend.” OR “She was running around with her sister’s ex-boyfriend.”

  9. Lauren Dunbar says:

    What about a couple’s possessive of one thing, like a home or a child?
    Should I write: Joe’s and Kay’s new home? OR Joe and Kay’s new home?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *