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Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.


Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm

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.

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

Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble

Newsflash: apostrophes are not optional. If they ever become so, the writer-reader relationship will be one step closer to dysfunctional. Still, many casual scribblers would rather not be bothered.

Apostrophes are a lot easier for those who slow down and do what it takes to get them right. For instance, to show possession with singular nouns that don’t end in s, all you have to do is add ’s (girl’s, farm’s, love’s). Most people can handle that. Admittedly, trouble arises with certain other kinds of nouns. We will deal with some of those problems in weeks to come.

Today we’ll examine singular nouns that end in s, with lens, cactus, and series as examples. Such words can become confusing when they are made plural, then made possessive.

To form the singular possessive form of a word like lens, just add ’s: the lens’s reflection. But how about more than one lens’s reflection? The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe. You can’t go wrong if you take this in two steps. First write the plural, lenses. Then add an apostrophe … and there you are: the lenses’ reflection.

It’s different with cactus, because the plural is cacti. The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun not ending in s, add ’s. So, depending on your meaning, you would write either the cactus’s spines for one cactus* or the cacti’s spines for two or more cacti.

Now consider series, which is the same word whether singular or plural. If a scientist has conducted a sequence of lab experiments, we would write about the series’s outcome. Because we mean one series, we add ’s, just as we would do with any singular noun.*

But what if the scientist then ran another cycle of tests and compared it to the first? Then we’d be reporting on the two series’ results. Because we mean more than one series, we add only an apostrophe to series, just as we would do with any plural noun ending in s.

*Note: Although we endorse an ’s for all possessive singular nouns ending in s, not everyone agrees. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe: the bus’ route, my boss’ orders.

Then there’s the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally backs the ’s but prescribes only an apostrophe when the word that follows begins with an s. This means that the Associated Press would recommend the cactus’s needles, but also the cactus’ spines because of the first s in spines.

Does that seem odd to you, too?


Pop Quiz

1. That specie’s/species’/species’s status was changed to endangered.

2. McDermott is the people’s/peoples’ choice.

3. Those company’s/companies’/companie’s profits are way up.

4. Her many dress’s/dress’/dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. That species’s status was changed to endangered. (but some would endorse species’)

2. McDermott is the people’s choice.

3. Those companies’ profits are way up.

4. Her many dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

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Posted on Sunday, May 4, 2014, at 9:59 pm

The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm

Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.


Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm