Why do I so often see the possessive for a proper noun ending in 's' formed incorrectly?
This is correct: Mr. Ross's book. This is incorrect: Mr Ross' book
This is correct: Paris's dog. This is incorrect: Paris' dog
This is correct: the actress's Oscar, This is incorrect: the actress' Oscar.
Seasons change, fashions change, times change, and so does grammar.
While it’s true that the standard used to be Mr. Ross’s book and Paris’s dog and the actress’s Oscar, the writing world has moved on from that rule.
Today, the acceptable way of showing possession is “the actress’ Oscar.” “Actress” ends in not just one “s,” but two. No need to add a third “s” to the pot. It’s also acceptable to use just the apostrophe, with no extra “s,” when the noun doing the possessing has only one “s,” such as dogs’ house (meaning multiple dogs who share a house).
Technically, you still have a choice when the subject doing the possessing is a proper name. You could write “Mr. Ross’s book” or “Mr. Ross’ book.” However, it is the norm today to skip the additional “s” and write “Mr. Ross’ book” or “Paris’ dog.” This is true with names that end in an “s.” It’s not true for names that don’t end in an “s,” such as Helen. For example, “this is Helen’s decree” is correct. “This is Helen’ decree” is not.
The rule has changed for several reasons. Fewer letters to type = fewer letters to print for the publisher. (Which also helps explain why one space between sentences is now more acceptable than two spaces.)
The esses don’t seem to go on forever like a snake hissing.
It’s easier to type “Ross’” than to type “Ross’s.”
It changed because it did. Editors started telling writers to drop the “s” to show possession when the noun ended in an “s.” Then newspaper editors began to bellow that the world was running out of esses and reporters should quit wasting them. Somewhere along the line, ordinary people began to drop the additional “s.” Then other less ordinary people followed suit. Then tabloids began to run front page stories about the shortfall of esses and how celebrities were having to name their kids things like “Apple” and “Moonblood” and “Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily” and fans wept at the pain of celebrities and began demanding a change.
And then it changed. So we can all thank the celebrities.
Even so, we still use a lot of esses. The “s” has been worn off my keyboard. Along with the “e” and the “r” and the “d” and the “n.” Why is that?
Signed, Helen, who has no “s” anywhere in her name, not her first name, her second, her maiden, her mother’s maiden, or her married name. Thank you, Brad and Jolie and Gwyneth and Tom and all the celebrities everywhere.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.